Ask any little girl today about stitches and samplers and she may respond that stitches are what a doctor gives you after a hard fall and samplers are an appetizer you order when you’re really hungry. But to someone coming of age in the 18th and 19th centuries, “stitching a sampler” meant threading a needle through a swath of fabric—an essential skill of young women at the time.
Whether simple or elaborate, large or small, samplers often included letters of the alphabet or animals and flowers, family birth and death records or poetry and prayers.
Long-tossed in the trash or stashed in the attic, these pieces are now cherished by collectors like Marian Soss, 85, of Burlingame, California, whose assortment of more than 100 samplers from nearly a dozen countries was recently compiled into a book Let Love Abide. She donates all proceeds from her book to Mission Hospice, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping care for seriously ill patients and their families.
Here, Soss shares with us her love for the cloth of the past.
“At my engagement party in 1946, my mother-in-law, Rose, handed me a present wrapped in tissue paper and blue satin ribbon. Inside was an old brown linen sampler embroidered with the English alphabet.
Rose’s mother had purchased it for 10 cents at a rummage sale in North Dakota shortly after emigrating to the U.S. from Germany in the early 1900s. She told Rose it was ‘a piece of America.’ Rose told me ‘I have a feeling this sampler will play an important part in your life.’”
“It wasn’t until 1970, when my late husband and I bought a condo in Lake Tahoe that I remembered the sampler. I framed the piece of real Americana and hung it on the wall. Soon, I was out at antique shops and garage sales purchasing two or three more.
When my oldest daughter sent me a sampler reference book, I became fascinated with samplers, realizing each one told a different story.”
Most Valuable Piece
“At an antique show at the fairgrounds in Hillsborough, California, a dealer had a magnificent sampler from Mexico with sequins, beading, and lacework. But it had a big ‘not for sale’ sign attached.
My husband told the dealer he would love to get that for his wife. He went back Friday, Saturday, and Sunday until the dealer finally said ‘all right it’s yours.’ The date on the sampler is Aug 11: our wedding anniversary. It’s my greatest treasure.”
Most Rewarding Get
“I purchased an 1825 beaded sampler made by a 10-year-old girl in France. It looks just like an oil painting, but when you get up close you realize it’s all done in beads. I purchased it 15 years ago and have never seen one like it again.”
“As a Mother’s Day gift to myself, I bought an 1835 sampler by the Stoddard family of Chesterfield, New Hampshire. It’s a combination of an alphabet/learning sampler and a family record.”
“I usually just stumble onto something that appeals to me. Something of interest may be an unusual name, a sampler with humor, or a sampler with sadness.”
“The most important thing to look for is its condition. Never purchase a sampler with stains or a hole, or one that’s been resewn. It should also be something you are attracted to or that means something to you. Many dealers will give information (where from, who made it), so get as much information as you possibly can. It adds to it.”
[Photography from Let Love Abide]