Sarah Howell Antique Sampler

11th September 2020

There has been a renewed passion for antique samplers over the past decades. In terms of stitching, a casual survey suggests that when it comes to cross stitch, reproduction antique samplers are a favourite subject, with many people collecting chart after chart in the hope that they might one day get the chance to stitch them all.

This passion also extends to collecting originals. There are a huge number of needlework lovers who dream of discovering that historic gem one day in an attic or junk shop. They anticipate the joy of brushing away the dust and revealing a perfect slice of embroidery history, stitched painstakingly by young hands and revealing the forgotten story of a little girl or a young lady who laboured over each and every stitch.

Busy Fingers’ by Christine P. Bishop from Inspirations issue #50

From at least the seventeenth century, but probably much earlier, young girls in many parts of the UK and Europe were expected to learn to embroider. The sampler was her learning tool – a project designed to embed the technique into the mind of the stitcher.

Learning stitches was just one aspect, the design of the sampler itself would create a record of the family, the times and the circumstances.

Some included an edifying verse or saying. Others provided a study tool for letters and numbers. No matter what motifs were chosen, once complete, the sampler stood as a demonstration of the young lady’s achievements, a reminder of her life as well as a reference for the stitches she would likely use again and again.

Pioneer Girl’s Book Etui’ from the book Willing Hands by Betsy Morgan

Kathleen Weston from Albuquerque, New Mexico, happened to be hunting for antiques – a passion of hers – after a visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England. Perhaps it was serendipity but on leaving the museum she spotted an antique store just across the road, and behind the door discovered a beautifully preserved, antique sampler.

The proprietor of the store explained that the sampler had come to him through his aunt, but having no date recorded on it, was difficult to value.

Knowing how old a sampler is becomes very important when determining its worth, so Kathleen decided she would use her skills as a genealogist to find out.

What was known was that the sampler was stitched by a young lady called Sarah Howell, and that the proprietor, David, was connected to Sarah in some way via his aunt. However, exactly when Sarah would have threaded her needle to begin was, at that stage, a matter of guesswork.

Kathleen’s initial assessment of the sampler convinced her that it had been precious to the family. It had been well framed under glass and kept out of the sun, so it was not faded and remained in excellent condition with only a few broken threads.

Starting from the name of the aunt who had donated the sampler, Kathleen put on her detective hat and, through research, a number of well-informed assumptions and a smattering of heartfelt intuition, she finally dated the piece to the 1830s and worked out the story of the sampler and a little of Sarah Howell herself.

Kathleen felt that it was important for the sampler to retain its ‘story’, so she recorded the details she had discovered on the backing paper of the frame for future generations. In this way, not only did she ensure the sampler was preserved physically, but she made sure it was also preserved historically.

Kathleen’s experience is one which has been reproduced over and over as lovers of embroidery have gone out of their way to track down these little slices of textile history.

Each discovery represents an individual’s history, but more importantly a piece of the larger history of women, the tasks they undertook, and the overall history of the art of needlework.

Whether you have collected an original or stitched a reproduction, you are also becoming a part of that larger history. We’ve spoken before about the threads which travel from stitchers of the past through to the stitchers of the present. Each antique sampler forms one of those threads, weaving in and out of history and ultimately connecting us all.

Virgin Queen’s Stitching Wallet from the book Willing Hands by Betsy Morgan

If you have had any experiences with discovering the origins of antique needlework, we’d love to hear about them. Email us at

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