Now I am not a sampler historian. Until I discovered 17th and 18th century samplers I didnt’ care for them much at all, actually. I hate stitching words in cross stitch or backstitch, and just can’t wrap my head around the little pastoral houses with oversized dogs and cats in the yard. I dislike the “primitive” style intensely on a personal level. I loved Thea Dueck and Just Nan’s samplers, but couldn’t see myself hanging them on the wall once I’d finished stitching them. What to do, what to do?
Then I discovered the historic band sampler and the spot motif sampler, and all the ones in between that combine the best of both worlds and kajillions of different stitches. I was hooked. Basically what this, combined with osme of my other tendencies underscores, is that if it happened before 1800 I’m much more likely to be interested in it. <grin>
Samplers and the motifs you find on them have a bit ofa torrid affair with historians. Just about everyone who gets involved with studying them wants to know the history and meaning of each individual motif.
I fear this has become a bit of a game. You find cats defined as quick-witted, but also as lazy. When I put a cat into my work, I’m much more likely to be thinking of my furry baby at home than about some deep symbolic meaning of the motif. (English majors do the symbology thing too… even though Poe has written countless letters stating that “The Bells” was nothing more than an excercise in rhythm and rhyme, the English departments all insist we dig out whatever meaning we can from it.) As my heart-sister says, “Sometimes a cat in a flowerpot is just a cat in a flowerpot.”
That said, there ARE some overarching archetypes. However, these are often nationality, or even region-specific. We see crowns in the samplers of monarchists families under Cromwell. Some German samplers have coats of arms or crests related to their region of origin that crop up. Dutch samplers often have stylized tulips.
I think rather than symbolic, most sampler motifs are either regional or just something the stitcher liked. The historical pattern books like Scholyker’s Scholehouse for the Needle don’t assign meanings to each little design. Many of the symbols developed out of older symbology, especially in Eastern Europe.
But although people have loved including secret messages in their lives (language of flowers, language of fans, symbols in samplers), even if a meaning was intended we would need to be using the same dictionary as the maker to interpret it correctly. There are as many Victorian dictionaries of flower meanings as there are flowers, all different. And, as different meanings for motifs crop up almost daily — finding the one true dictionary seems to me to be so close to impossible that it becomes irrelevant.
So I’ll continue to stitch historic samplers, but I’ll also continue to design my own. Find what symbology in them as you will: I’m not putting it there intentionally!
Other links of interest:
- Shakespeare’s Peddler list of motif meanings
- Linda Fontenot’s History of Decorative Motifs (includes charts)
- Simply Samplers Sampler Motifs
- Judy Of White Works has quite a nice essay on Samplers.
And that should probably keep you busy for a while!
I’d love to hear your views on samplers and sampler motifs…