John Varley


Sampler, undated, Linen/Cotton, H 2.75 in x W 11 in. New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York, The Farmer’s Museum, F0173.1946. Photo by Richard Walker.

Unfinished artifacts pose some questions. Why was this object left undone? Did the creator stop because of circumstances, or choose to give up? What was the circumstance, or what was the choice? These questions are difficult to answer even if we know who the creator was. Having an anonymous artifact complicates matters even further. However, sometimes we can infer reasons from the clues in the artifact itself.

This sampler was never meant to be large or showy. It was made on a small piece of linen, with space for little besides the alphabet. The alphabet itself is finished, but ends less than halfway across the second row. It was not centered, giving the feeling that the line was meant to continue with something else. The sampler has neither a name nor a date, both common features in samplers.[1]

A few oddities stand out in this sampler. First is its decorative border, a blue zig-zag pattern with an unusual stitching style. When asked about the stitch, Dr. Cynthia Falk of CGP could not identify it.[2] It is possible that the unusual stitch was a mistake, a misunderstanding of a pattern, or a lesser-known pattern that has not survived to today. Perhaps she was simply experimenting.

A subtler feature would be the scraps of paper that are stuck to the sampler. These are only a few tiny shreds, sewn into the letters and hem. This implies that this sampler was made to follow a pattern, tearing out some bits of paper in the sewing. Perhaps the maker had difficulty getting the scraps out, or maybe that would have been one of the last steps in finishing the sampler. With the piece left unfinished, she never got that far.

The third oddity, though, may tell us more. In most textile works, the hem is folded back, so that the side of the cloth that people will see appears cleaner and neater. On three of the four sides of this piece, the hem is folded forward. It is clearly visible on the front of the piece, with the decorative border sewn over it. This could be the reason why this piece remained unfinished. It is possible that the maker’s instructor saw the mistake and ordered the girl to start over. With such a large mistake, it would be simpler to start over than to pick out all the threads and try to fix it. Still, this leaves its own question. If the student was making the hem backwards, why is the bottom hemmed normally?

This gives us scraps of a story, but with them we can begin to put something together. We can safely assume the creator was a young girl, as samplers were a part of a girl’s education in their heyday.[3] We know she was still learning, from the traces of pattern and the flawed hem. With almost nothing, this partial sampler tells the story of a young girl struggling to learn, and stumbling along the way.

[1] Lynne Anderson, Samplers International (Philomath, Benton County Historical Society and Museum, 2011), 11.

[2] Cynthia Falk, “Sampler Documentation” (class lecture, Cooperstown Graduate Program, Cooperstown, New York, April 5th, 2016).

[3]Anderson, Samplers International, 9.