University of Delaware
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Unraveling the secrets
behind the stitches

What information will the first centralized database of American samplers contain? Each needlework will undergo extensive scholarly interrogation, referred to by Patricia Keller, curator of digital collections for the Sampler Archive Project, as "a much expanded and refined version of who, what, when, where, why and how."

  • "Who" concerns the maker of the piece, her family, and her needlework teacher and school, if those facts can be known.
  • "What" captures the sampler's physical construction — the fiber of the ground fabric, the weave, threads per square inch, color and condition, and the fiber types and colors of the threads used to work the visual elements. The intellectual content — numbers, dates, alphabetical letters and texts — will be transcribed exactly as worked by the needle, Keller says, and the pictorial representations will be identified and matched, where possible, to period illustrations and print sources.
  • "When" addresses the date the sampler was made, which some makers stitched on the fabric. Otherwise, an approximate production date might be determined by curatorial study and comparison to similar, dated objects.
  • "How" concerns the techniques and kinds of stitches and embellishments the maker employed. Information about the sampler's mount (if there is one) and original framing and glazing (if that can be known) also is important.
  • "Why" is among the deeper questions driving the research, notes Keller.

"These objects are infinitely varied and yet structurally patterned, beautiful and often humble, and always a testament to a young woman's significant investment of time and effort — and her family's commitment to her participation in this handwork activity," Keller says. "Through analysis of the data, we expect to learn more about the meanings young women created as they worked needlework samplers in schools, as well as the meanings communicated when families displayed and retained these objects across generations, making them available for study today."