Embroidery Sampler


Here is the embroidery sampler I promised to show you. Like the knitting sampler I wrote about two weeks ago, this sampler isn’t spectacular or particularly beautiful. But unlike the knitting sampler, whose maker is unknown to me, I know with 100% certainty who made this embroidery sampler. It was my Mum.

Not only did she show it to me, she also embroidered her name and the date on it.

My Mum made the sampler at school in 1941, when she was 8 or 9. It was the beginning of World War II and the family lived in Leeuwarden, the capital of Friesland. She didn’t talk about it very much, but I have heard stories of bombings and scarcity.

One story that has stayed with me, is that they sometimes had ‘guests’ staying at their house. At those times, she and her sisters shared one bed to free up their own beds. During a razzia, the children were woken up in the middle of the night. The visitors were hidden in a secret space, and the girls had to run around the house, so that the Germans couldn’t see who had been sleeping where. A strange and scary time to grow up in.

To some girls, making an embroidery sampler may have been a welcome distraction. I don’t think it was to my Mum.

I’ve seen similar samplers, and compared to those, hers has only a few decorative borders. The alphabet is incomplete and the letters are jumbled up.

To the left of the actual letters, there are 3 aborted attempts (photo below, bottom left). Or were those the place where she started, meant for practicing cross stitches?

After this, she never did any counted cross stitch again. She did like embroidery, but of a different kind. She has made many, many colourful table cloths embroidering over pre-printed patterns.

Still, although Mum didn’t enjoy doing cross stitch, the sampler must have been special to her. After WWII, in the early 1950s, the family (minus one daughter who was already married) emigrated to Australia, hoping for a better life.

My Mum’s fiancé (later my Dad) came with them, but couldn’t acclimatize. And several years later my Mum and Dad came back to the Netherlands, with just one suitcase each holding all of their earthly possessions. The embroidery sampler must have been in her suitcase, travelling all the way to Australia and back again. An extraordinary story about an ordinary sampler.

I have an old magazine packed with pictures and patterns of embroidery samplers.

There are many much more elaborate samplers in it, but also several school samplers. Here is Mum’s sampler next to one in the magazine. Same kind of letters, same kind of decorative borders.

And here are three similar ones framed on a wall. They are almost always embroidered just in red thread, with a few exceptions using blue as well as red.

I’m thinking of having Mum’s cleaned and framed now, too.

Years ago, I knit a series of beaded wrist warmers…

…including a pair inspired by the embroidery sampler. One of them with my initials, and the other with the year I made them on it.

They are nice accessories that keep the wind from blowing up my sleeves when I’m riding my bicycle.

I’m now working on a project incorporating elements from both the knitting sampler and the embroidery sampler. More about that in a few weeks’ time, I hope.

For those of you who’d like to know more, this is THE book on Frisian embroidery samplers:

Letter voor Letter was written by Gieneke Arnolli, the now-retired Fashion and Textiles curator of the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden, and Rosalie Sloof. It contains loads of information, many beautiful photographs, an English summary, and a complete fold-out pattern for a sampler. It is out of print, unfortunately, but there are some second-hand copies around, and it can still be borrowed from Dutch libraries.

The Fries Museum has a collection of over 600 samplers from the 17th to the 20th Century. A large part of the collection can be viewed on the website friesemerklappen.nl. A wonderful source of information and inspiration. Most examples of red school samplers like my Mum’s can be found on pages 6 and 7 of the website.

Click on the button ‘Alle merklappen’ for an overview. Zoom in on the samplers by holding the Ctrl key and scrolling simultaneously, or by holding the Ctrl key and using the + to zoom in and – to zoom out. Be amazed and have fun!

10 thoughts on “Embroidery Sampler”

  1. Hi Marijke,
    dankjewel voor je verhaal. Heb je ooit van je moeder vernomen waarom zij maar een half vierkant lapje stramien had? Materiaalgebrek in de oorlog? Mijn moeder heeft in de oorlog halve onderbroeken etc. op de huishoudschool moeten maken, vanwege gebrek aan materiaal, en dan ook nog van glibberig synthetisch materiaal…

    • Ha Gieneke, Nee, mijn moeder heeft het daar nooit over gehad. Eerlijk gezegd had ik er niet eens zo bij stil gestaan dat het maar een half lapje was, maar je hebt natuurlijk gelijk. Ik had niet gedacht dat er zo vroeg in de oorlog al gebrek was, maar dat zal het idd geweest zijn. Halve onderbroeken, jeetje, en dan ook nog van zulk materiaal. Wat moet dat demotiverend geweest zijn voor die meiden. Bedankt voor je reactie; dat geeft nog weer een andere kijk op het geheel.

      Here’s a translation of this interesting comment. Gieneke wrote: Thank you for your story. Did your mum ever tell you why she had only half of a canvas square? Wartime scarcity of materials? My mother had to make half pairs of drawers at domestic science school during the war because of lack of materials, and on top of that from a slippery synthetic fabric… Marijke wrote: No, my Mum didn’t mention that. In fact, I hadn’t even realized that it is only half a square, but you’re right, of course. I didn’t know that there was scarcity this early in the War, but that must have been it. Half pairs of drawers, oh my, and then that kind of fabric. That must have been so demotivating for the girls. Thank you for your comment – it sheds a new light on the sampler.

  2. Lovely, thank you for sharing!

    My mother-in-law who was born and grew up in Norway has what I now realize is a sampler framed on her wall. It was embroidered by an ancestor but I’m not sure exactly who. She bore the name Jonetta which possibly was frequent in Norway but I never heard of it in Sweden.

    My parents-in-law considered emigrating to Australia in the sixties but settled for Sweden!

    • Is there a date on the sampler on your MIL’s wall? It would be a great starting point for getting to know more about Jonetta and other ancestors of your husband’s. Most people are very happy to talk about their relatives, their childhood and what they know about the more distant past. I wish I had asked my Mum and other relatives more when I still had the chance. And just think about it – if your parents-in-law had chosen Australia, you would never have met your husband!

  3. These samplers are not only textile records of skill but also historical records. Also so interesting to know the background of the scarcity of fabric due to the war. It makes such a sweet simple sampler all the more poignant and precious. You are fortunate to have this one made by your mother. Thank you for sharing this treasured memory, I hope you will have it preserved, either in a frame or memory box.

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