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A Common Thread

American girls often stitched personality into their embroidery samplers. O.C. families treasure these heirlooms as ties to the past.


Samplers, those intricately embroidered, highly personalized pieces of fabric art made by young girls, were displayed in many Colonial homes. Many of those that remain now are carefully preserved in museums; the rare ones still in homes are treated as valued heirlooms.

Stitch samplers, the only collectible in America made by children, are cherished because they reveal so much about the girls who created them.

Usually around the age of 13, girls were trained in needlework and spent hours practicing stitches. They embellished their work with designs and alphabets. Often they added sayings, which ranged from "When this you see, remember me" to "Patty Polk did this and she hated every stitch she did in it."

Samplers seldom change hands, says Ron Soares of San Clemente Antiques. "A few years ago I purchased several items from an elderly woman who was moving to a nursing home. She'd included a beautiful sampler that I planned to keep myself. Several days later she called and told me she wanted it back to hang on the wall of her room. She said it was her special link to the past."

Most of the samplers were signed and dated, many recorded trends or historic events. The most common designs were a rose, trefoil, strawberry, acorn and the tree of life. Others were geometric. Many girls used alphabets and numbers only. Borders were done in cross-stitch or as vines with flowers. The canvas was linen; threads of silk, linen, wool or cotton were dyed, often with herbs. Many stitchers used a gold thimble, passed from generation to generation along with the samplers.

Arla Smith of South Orange County has an embroidery sampler in perfect condition--and it's not for sale. It was made in 1765 by her great-great-great-great-grandmother Judith in Newberry Port, Mass.

Judith was 11 when she completed the picture, worked in silk floss in a satin stitch using rich brown, beige and grayed aquas. The scene is of a woman, a shepherd, three sheep and two dogs. A bird, butterfly, rabbit, trees, flowers and a two-story Georgian house with three chimneys finish the scene.

The man's and woman's features were too difficult for the young girl to stitch, so she painted the hands and faces.

The 17-inch-by-16-inch work was put in an ornate wooden frame in 1778 and has been handed down by family members for generations. Smith has had it since 1933 and has made arrangements for it to be donated to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Perry Galante, a San Clemente specialist in estate liquidation, recently sold two turn-of-the-century samplers. "They were not very detailed, so they only brought a few hundred dollars. Some of them can sell for thousands."

Joan Africa of Laguna Hills also has pieces of her family's past adorning her walls.

"I have a sampler made by my great-grandmother," she said. "It has been passed down through the generations and came to me folded in a box. I had it framed on a muslin backing. It is a very simple sampler done in silk on linen. It is signed 'Esther Livinia Fowler, age 11 years, done in Tasewell County, Ill., in 1837.' "

This sampler shows the traditional style of rows of numbers and letters. Other rows include Coptic crosses, bare trees, flowers, hearts and decorative stitches. One section features trees on either side of a tall house with windows, towers and gables flanked by two dogs with curly tails.

Africa also has a sampler made by her mother-in-law. The 16-inch-by-22-inch piece was made in silk floss on linen.

"It's a more elaborate and finer-done work," Africa said, "as it was done by an adult in the early '30s."

The sampler has four sections depicting ducks, geese, birds and flowers forming a meadow. Fish and crosses fill the center, and a poem is at the top and bottom:

Daisies plied and hollyhocks

all silver white

Do paint the meadows with delight.

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