1847 Montreal Band Sampler

Please note that Miss Lent begins to show hand drawn stitch diagrams in this section of the manuscript. I have chosen to omit those charts, as they represent common stitch techniques readily available in other resources.

Peculiarities of the old Montreal Sampler

     After considering some of the characteristics of historic samplers, we may now appreciate the differences to be found in the Montreal sampler we are about to study in detail.  In its narrow width and exceptional length, it might be compared with the samplers of the Tudor period, for our sampler was forty-eight feet long and about six inches wide!  It incorporated some one hundred and thirty-nine designs—including petit point floral letters of the alphabet, suitable for use as monograms.  The remainder of the one hundred and thirteen canvas stitch designs are of practical use to any modern worker. 

     Most of the designs are of an all-over nature, and might be used for any number of purposes, such as chair seats, stools, bags, cushions, etc.  and are suitable for use with contemporary furnishings or period pieces, and their delightfully unusual colourings are desirable for most settings.  

     The sampler designs reveal clearly the many characteristics of the creator.  Obviously she was possessed of infinite patience and excellent technique; as well as an effective, if not often unconventional colour sense.  Her work is delightfully imaginative and individual, yet not inconsistent with the tastes of her time. 

     Before this work of a century ago can be fully comprehended, it is necessary to learn the language of her basic stitches.  This proves to be unbelievably simple, for our artist confined herself to a comparatively restricted vocabulary, utilizing only a limited number of canvas stitches in various combinations.  They are the basic stitches, such as might have been taught to any private school or convent, or in the home by a cultivated mother or governess.

     Such basic stitches should be learned like an alphabet, in order to describe properly either simple or complex patterns, both types being found in this sampler. 

      Our needle-artist used simple materials—various coloured yarns, including a number of shades in each colour; some metallic thread, some plaited straw braid, black silk twist, and a few beads. 

     The sampler’s base was a forty-eight feet of strong, single-mesh canvas, such as that on which petit-point is executed.  This type of narrow canvas was used for the making of Victorian bell pulls, such as occasionally find their way to antique dealers; and in their day were to be found as an accessory in many fine drawing rooms to summon servants. 

     On such a long narrow piece of canvas, six inches in width, our Montreal shopkeeper stitched her designs in careful sequence, coiling her work neatly in a roll for convenience, as she continued progressively from one end to the other, and dated it between 1847 and 1849.

     The single mesh canvas may be a little confusing to North American Workers, where double-bar canvas, (technically known as Penelope canvas), is more generally procurable.  However, anyone inclined to copy any of these designs, like those in the so-called Gobelin upright stitches, may execute them between the double bars of this type of canvas to produce the same effect as that of the original single bar canvas.  However, with more imports from Europe since the last war, correct single mesh canvas can be procured readily enough from the needlework departments of large stores and most specialty shops.

     The sampler maker’s favourite stitch was the simple and familiar Cross Stitch.  With this lovable old stitch, (probably dating from the time when the woof and weft were first covered of the crudest fabrics made on the primitive looms), our worker created unusual effects, peculiarly her own.

     As a completely individualistic expression, she sometimes used Cross Stitch on the canvas with fine, tightly twisted black silk thread—the canvas deliberately permitted to show through, to produce an unusually effective, ‘lace-like’ background for her most beautiful designs. 

     Her Cross Stitch, whether of silk or wool, was always in the best, smooth technique, both on the right side or reverse of her fabric.  In some designs large Cross Stitch was used, covering as much as four bars of canvas in this manner————

Chart in original manuscript here

Tent Stitch, or what is familiarly known today as needlepoint, was another favorite stitch.   She worked her needlepoint in the correct manner, from right to left, proved by the fact that the reverse side of the canvas is covered completely with long slanting stitches.  She never used Half Cross Stitch, which many modern workers use today, as so-called needlepoint, believing they are saving wool.  In reality they are creating a weak fabric for the reverse of the canvas is left uncovered, and therefore unprotected, except for line of small darning stitches.  Our Montreal worker was wise, for she worked her sampler to be permanent, and she confined herself to the use of correct Tent Stitch for her needlepoint effects.  She was actually creating real petit-point, for she usually covered but and single bar of canvas with her Tent Stitch. 

     Here is a diagram of this stitch, and the way she used it:

Chart in original manuscript here

     Another stitch, of which our worker was particularly fond, was the graceful Gobelin Stitch, and its variations.  This canvas stitch is not as familiar or as popular today as it deserves to be.  She preferred this stitch in its long, up-right form, and sometimes as a long, slanting stitch.  Again, in alternating stitches of varied length.  There is a form of beautiful old embroidery variously known as Point d’Hongroise, Bargello, Florentine Stitch, or Flame embroidery, which is based solely on the Upright Goleblin Stitch.     

     Her favorite interpretation of Gobelin Stitch covered four bars of canvas.  Here are diagrams of Gobelin Stitch, and some of its variations:

     Be careful to cover the exact number of bars as given in the diagram, whether they be over two, three, four, or ever up to eight bars of canvas; for only by following the number of bars exactly will the desired effects be produced.  The stitches must be placed neatly, and of even tension, side by side, in the arrangements, simple of complicated, as the charts disclose. 

Chart in original manuscript here

      A peculiarly individualistic character, evident in her work, was the use of monochromatic rhythms in the colouring, or the use of several tone of one colour—for example a rhythm ranging from softest white-grey to deep smoke-grey, or from palest shell pink to deep wine red, or from the palest off-white to deepest brown.  With these suggestions, we introduce you to this new friend, and her intriguing mystery of more than a century ago.  She has a wealth to give you in your needlework. 

     We are delighted to have had the privilege of discovering this interesting, timeless artist, and it is our pleasure to acknowledge our indebtedness for this privilege to MacDonald College, when its Craft Department was under the direction of Dr. Ivan Crowell, and the late Dr. Murray Gibbon, without whose inspiration and help the preparation of this book would not have been possible.

One authority believes that the earliest attempts at lace making originated with this drawing of threads in linen fabric, and drawing the remaining threads together with the use of Buttonhole Stitch, or Wrapping Stitch, into patterns, similar to the technique used in the familiar hemstitching. This was the sort of thing done in the 17th century samplers, and is a more advanced type of needlework, similar to the ‘Point lace’ of expensive imported Italian clothes of today.
Another type of all-over embroidered bands appears in these samplers, utilizing Satin Stitch and eyelet embroidery, called ‘Bird’s eye pattern’.
One of the most beautiful samplers I have ever seen in tin the Victoria and Albert Museum, dated 1643. Another in the same museum, dated 1633, is signed by the worker. Another beautiful linen sampler reached America; and it should perhaps be noted here that most North American samplers take direct inspiration from England, and were introduced and fostered in the English colonies of Virginia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Long Island, rather than the part of New York State that came under Dutch influence. These were the same influences brought to Canada by the United Empire Loyalists at the time of the American Revolution. For instance, the first wife of Governor Endicott of Massachusetts, brought her sampler, dated 1628 from England, and it is still preserved in the Essex Institute, in Salem, Massachusetts.
Not many, if any, of this type of long sampler seem to have been made in Canada, for the type of sampler created in the time of the American Revolution and after, and the kind actually brought to Canada by the United Empire Loyalists, were quite different from the early type before mentioned; though, as we have said, certain influences from Britain persisted. Rather those brought to Canada and copied there were the sort more familiar to u as the samplers of our grandmothers.
The drastic change in the appearance of samplers became evident in Britain during the 18th. Century. First, the shape of the sampler became noticeably different; shorter and broader. The name of the worker, and date of completion, became more common. Cut and drawn work, and the use of metallic threads disappeared entirely. The samplers became more pictorial, with a surrounding border. Coloured silks or linen were used to work the samplers, for coloured worsteds were not generally used in samplers until 1800. First red, blue and green were used, and gradually yellow, brown and other shades were introduced.
Lettering was widely used in samplers, and it became customary for children to learn their alphabet by making a sampler, rather than an art form for older young ladies. However, children had been encouraged to make samplers from the 17th century. These are records of the child’s progress. For instance in the year 1668, Martha Ellin finished a simple sampler. A year later she completed an intricate white sampler. At the age of ten, she worked an elaborate needlework jewel cabinet. In 1671, at the age of thirteen, she finished a fine dressing box of embroidery with beadwork details on white satin. By the 18th Century, little girls were learning more than stitchery in their samplers. They were memorizing moral precepts. In the year 1752 little Elizabeth Cortland made a sampler typical of the time, with the little figures, birds, animals, trees, house, fence and flowers, the alphabet, her name, and date, to which was added the Lord’s prayer—all in Tent Stitch. This was no exception in that time. Scriptural verses were often copied.
The advent of Methodism is said to have fostered the use of pious verse on samplers—some accentuating the sadness of brevity of life. A curious morbid attraction for the theme of death is evident at the close of the 18th century, both in English and American samplers. It may be found surprising that a verse, frequently parodied, is taken from a sampler of this time, the closing lines of which read:
“When I am dead and laid in the grave, and all my bones are rotten,
By this you may remember me when I shall be forgotten.”

But all the influence of moralizing adults for the edification of children could not prevents a natural childish exuberance from manifesting itself in many samplers. The morbid period was bound to pass, and many of the old samplers with which we are familiar are charmingly quaint in sentiment and design. Little girls in England also learned their geography lessons in the making of map samplers, but this type of sampler never became popular in North America.
While samplers in the 19th century were not so finely executed in Colonial America as in the great sampler period in Britain, for the most part, those made in Canada were filled with individuality, humour, variety, and homespun irony. The nuns in Quebec convents taught their pupils the techniques of exquisite needlework, however, from the days of Champlain. Their incentive was the teaching of beautiful embroidery to their pupils in order to have them capable of making fine ecclesiastical needlework. On the other hand, the samplers made in the English speaking parts of Upper and Lower Canada, were less exacting, but part of the education of little girls for practical needlework. Loyalist mothers instructed their daughters to sew Cross Stitch on a piece of linen canvas of even weave. This type of a sampler usually had a neat border of flowers or fruit, an alphabet, a row of numerals, little domestic animals, a small house representing the home, and a motto, such as “God Bless our Home!”
Today authentic samplers of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries are eagerly sought by antique dealers. A few 17th century samplers appear on the market now and then, and are sought by museums. 18th century samplers are more plentiful, and 19th century samplers quite numerous for those willing to search for them.
While samplers were more popular in England and America than in Europe, there are fine German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, and Swiss examples. Certain differences are observable. Some French samplers are notable for elaborate motifs. Renaissance and Gothic designs are found in good Spanish and Italian samplers. German samplers are records of practical designs for household linens. The earliest dated German sampler is of the year 1818.
Samplers are still made in some parts of Europe and Africa. In Algeria, a sampler is considered an essential part of a girl’s trousseau; and a good sampler is still required to obtain a certificate of graduation from some schools of household science in Edinburgh and Denmark.


What is a Sampler anyway?

        It does not seem inappropriate here to define what a sampler actually is, and to give something of its history, in order that the particular and extraordinary sampler we are about to discuss may be understood and correlated to those of the past.

        Samplers are part of our tradition, especially if our roots spring from the British Isles or Colonial America. Our familiar concept of a sampler, such as we remember as a prized inheritance from our great grandmother-lovable and charming as it may be to us personally – is rarely likely to belong to the best period of sampler art. The finest are to be found only in a few important private collections, and in the historic needlework collections of famous museums, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, Kensington, London, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, or the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. these date back to the 17th century and are quite different to our grandmother’s sampler with its quaintly prim alphabet, figures, border and sentimental verses.

        The very word “sampler” has an interesting connotation. It comes from the Latin word exemplum; through the old essemplaire, and the Chaucerian English sampler – but a short step from our present sampler. It is defined as “a pattern or work or example of needlework”. The earliest samplers were sometimes called “samp clothe” or “samplettes”. In the truest sense of the word, in the recording of stitches, some form of sampler is as old as needlework; for the custom of recording stitches on cloth, particularly cotton or linen cloth, no matter how crude, seems to have had appeal for needleworkers ever since the weaving of cloth was first accomplished. And even long before that, a Solutre woman may have had her own sampler – stitching simple crossed stitches on a piece of skin with a bone needle and sinew thread.

        The first mention of sampler is believed to be in the household accounts of King Edward IV of England: “an elne of lynnyn cloth for a sampler for the queen”. There is another early entry concerning a sampler in the household accounts of Elizabeth of York, dated July 1, 1502, which states that eight pence was paid for an “elle of linen cloth for making a sampler”.

        Several things hastened the advance of samplers. One was the invention of the steel needle, which aided in the making of fine needlework; although iron needles had been used in ancient Egypt and Rome centuries before. It was not until the 16th century that steel needles were introduced to England. It is believed that it was first invented in India, in the year 1545. But the art was lost until 1560, when an Englishman, called Christopher Greening rediscovered the secret. Thimbles were not added to the diligent needleworker’s equipment for another hundred years. The ancient type of Irish leather ‘thum-bell’ or Saxon ‘by ewain’, had to suffice to prevent pricked fingers, until the thimble, similar to our own, was originated by a Dutch silversmith named Van Renselaer, as a surprise for his wife. The first of these said to be brought to England from Holland in 1675 by John Softing. Bronze thimbles, however had been used in ancient Herculaneum, as well as Egypt.

        But perhaps the most significant influence in the early sampler story was the introduction of pattern books with designs for needleworkers, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I-one such dated 1591. These designs were suitable for purses, handkerchiefs, and various garments, including dainty little embroidered caps. Indeed, samplers were becoming popular in the time of Elizabeth- an example preserved in the London Museum, embroidered with her coat of arms.

        Since pattern books were scarce, the sampler of hand-woven linen actually became a sort of stitch-book, on which was recorded useful stitches and designs, gathered from whatever sources were available, handed down from mother to daughter, or passed from friend to friend.

        The early samplers were originally long strips of linen, usually three or four feet long, and about nine inches wide- this being a common width of hand looms used for the weaving of such linen in those days. These 17th century samplers, mostly to be seen in museums, are exquisite works of art-definitely unlike later samplers. Little color was used in them. They were usually worked in natural colored linen or silk thread, sometimes with a bit of silver thread introduced, and incorporated as many as thirty floral or geometric patterns in needlepoint lace, cut work, drawn work and solid embroidery. This type of design was used for household linens and wearing apparel at that time. The samplers were kept rolled over a special piece of ivory. Favorite motifs in these bands of designs were generally what is known as ‘running designs’ for the upper part of the sample, utilizing conventionalized ‘Indian pink’ or formalized carnation themes, tulips, strawberries, trefoils, and some geometric forms. The lower half was usually filled with drawn or cutwork designs, known as ‘lace embroidery’ – rather like reticelli lace or punto in aria. Many of these designs were originally brought from Italy or Spain, and it is believed that Henry VIII’s wife, Catherine of Aragon, taught this type of needle lace or embroidery on linen to the women of Bedfordshire, in England.

To be continued…

First, I must apologize to the followers of this blog for the last post which was inadvertently published prior to completion and has been reposted . Now, I apologize for the quality of the photos in this post of Mary Hoskins’ sampler. The sampler is in the original frame and glaring bubbly glass, so you have the non professional treat of viewing the partial reflection of the author of this blog. Hopefully, you will be able to disregard the faux pas and appreciate the skill and determination of the twelve-year-old girl who stitched this piece.



           As I mustered up the courage to re-stitch the 139 patterns from the old sampler, I rekindled my stitching skills with this little sampler of patterns inspired by the sampler. It will be either a wallet or perhaps a cell phone pouch. All the materials were retrieved from Auntie’s stash!

                        Sometimes a craftsperson doesn’t seek a project, but the project finds the person.  Some part of me imagines our departed friends, my Aunt Phalice, Miss Lent, Dr. Crowell, Dr. Gibbon, and our anonymous needle worker sitting over a cup of tea, stitching, and discussing the colors, textures, patterns, tools, materials, and methods of their different generations.  What a discussion that would be and the pleasant surprise for all of them that technology now provides instant communication, abundant materials, and computer generated graphs. However, technology seems to have taken over the time for that cup of tea and stitching. Really tho, one wouldn’t think of drinking tea and stitching at the same time, for fear of soiling the precious work.

                Needlework skills traditionally were learned in youth at the knee of an elder, mother, or aunt. Crafting in our family was passed from my father’s sisters, Phalice and Billie, to any in our generation who were interested. Between the two of them, I was exposed to sewing, hand knitting, crocheting, ceramics, machine knitting, embroidery, needlepoint, cake decorating, weaving, and anything else that came along. They even saw it as their duty to teach us the Lord’s Prayer when I was ten. After all none of the other heathens in our family would be that responsible.

                Aunt Billie lived in Spokane and so did my family. I am the oldest of a four girl family and we all have fond memories of playing at Aunt Billie’s and her stuff!  Today, I am sure that she would be called a hoarder, but then, she was an adult child of the Great Depression and war times who never threw anything away. Aunt Phalice, Uncle Stanley, and Cousin Bill lived in Connecticut, where they had moved from Spokane in the 1930s to care for two unmarried great uncles and a widowed great-aunt who lived in the home that my great great grandfather Noah Hoskins built for his family in Simsbury around 1854.

                By now, you may be wondering, what do these ramblings have to do with the 1847 Montreal sampler?  Nothing directly, I must confess, but this is a blog, the twenty-first century version of an afternoon of stitching over a cup of tea, is more a conversation than a perfectly edited manuscript.

                To make the connection, there is another sampler in this story, a family sampler stitched by Mary Hoskins, when she was twelve. Mary was born November 5, 1815. The carefully cross stitched sampler, at least 32 stitches to the inch, is typical of the time and reads as well as a family Bible recording the dates of her father’s birth, her own mother’s birth and death, the birth and death of an older brother, and the births of four more siblings and her step mother.  Only the dates provide the clue that two of those siblings were half siblings and that she lost her birth mother when she was only six. Mary’s sampler evidently was stitched under the tutorship of her stepmother Abigail who was the widow of her father’s brother Asa. The sampler hangs on my living room wall, a companion to other family furniture which was moved to Spokane from CT in 1965. My interest is piqued about the needlework artist of this school girl sampler and through Ancetry.com and other genealogy sites, I learned that Mary Hoskins was my 2nd great grand-aunt, that she married, had children and lived to be 77.

                So this is one faded sampler, a family record, created by a school girl, cherished and handed down through the same family generation to generation. The other sampler is known to have existed; the evidence is Miss Lent’s carefully scripted manuscript. The record bounced from one unrelated individual to another, the maker unknown, traveled from Montreal to Bonners Ferry, Idaho. The record of the sampler followed the same route used by Hudson’s Bay leader James Sinclair to lead the Red River Emigrants  to Oregon in 1848, as told by Miss Lent in “West of the Mountains”. 

                Bringing this work to life is a tribute to the unknown needleworker and those who appreciated the skill and beauty and hoped to pass the techniques on to others. This conversation seems to be one-sided, so here are a few questions:

1)      If the sampler was stitched in Montreal in 1847 what materials would have been available and how and where would they have been purchased?

2)      What type of woman would have had the time and resources to stitch a piece 6” wide by forty-eight feet long with 139 different patterns in 1-2 years?

3)      Were the patterns originals or copied from a source, if so what sources were available?

4)      Where would a young (assumption) woman learn such skills?

This is the first installment of Miss Lent’s narrative on the old sampler. Enjoy the story. Do you think it is true?

With one hundred and thirty-nine designs for the modern worker
Narrated and prepared by
D. Geneva Lent
(Author of Needlepoint as a Hobby, Harper and Bros., 1942)
Note: This narrative was completed in 1960, but unpublished)


1. The mystery of the sampler

More than a hundred and twenty years ago, there lived in the old Canadian city of Montreal a needlewoman of unusual talent. Her name is unknown, and where her place of business may have been is unrecorded. But a curious, large piece of needlework survived for nearly a century to prove her existence. At least it was still intact at the beginning of the last Great War, but it appears to have been destroyed with the best of intentions, since portions of it may have been scattered in an effort to encourage needlecraft as a therapeutic aid during the period of rehabilitation.
Circumstances relative to the entire piece of needlework seem shrouded in mystery. One legend relates that the originator of the work owned a small needlework shop, on some forgotten side street in the French-Canadian city, early in the reign of Queen Victoria, and that one day she closed her shop and vanished from the face of the earth. Whether she was a victim of foul play, or simply discouraged by lack of business, escaped into romantic obscurity, we may never know. However, we are grateful that she left this one large piece of her exceptional work to prove she had lived, and attest to her exceptional skill as designer and embroiderer. She dated it 1847 at the beginning, and 1849 at the end.
If it should be true that the work has been destroyed, it is fortunate that it was sent to me by Dr. Ivan Crowell, (then Director of Handcrafts at McDonald College of McGill University), now Director of Rehabilitation Crafts for the Province of New Brunswick, and Director-founder of the School of Crafts, at the Bay of Funday in the Canadian Maritimes, as well as by the late John Murray Gibbon, when President of the Canadian Handicrafts Guild. They had asked me to comment on the work, and analyze its techniques and designs. I made a careful record of its motifs, stitches and colourings, which I have since developed, and now present for your use, as was their pleasure, and as the creator of the work would have wished.

The Mystery of an Old Sampler

Who would have imagined that when an unknown needlewoman completed her ambitious work in Montreal in 1848, the unique patterns would come to life once again through the hands of another needlewoman 2500 miles and 164 years removed? Hand to hand and generation to generation this rare example of Victorian perseverance was passed to people related only by their love and appreciation of the artistic skills of a woman long ago. To my knowledge, all that remains of the original work is a tattered unpublished manuscript discovered in my late aunt’s needlework book collection.

                It is my honor and privilege to attempt to unravel the mysteries created by this long ago story and once again bring to life this unique piece of needlework for others to enjoy. This was the desire of my aunt Phalice Ayers, Muriel Baker, The Connecticut River Embroidery Guild, Miss D. Geneva Lent, Dr. Crowell, and Dr. John Murray Gibbon. What prompted the anonymous needleworker to create a  unique sampler of 139 patterns 6” wide by 48 feet long is speculative. Each piece of this intriguing puzzle brings more questions and as I work on the recreation of the sampler stitches and digitizing of the pattern charts, more questions float through the spaces in the canvas; sparking my imagination.

                Please join me on this adventure, seeking clues to the mysteries of this long lost treasure.  Perhaps there are fragments lying in someone’s old cedar chest, somewhere?  Does anyone have a memory of any of the people listed? Did they ever mention the old sampler? My posts and photos will meander through what I know, have learned and what we will discover, stitch by stitch.