One Block at a Time: Two Centuries of Sampler Quilts

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Many quilters make a sampler for their first quilt, and Mary Kate is no exception. In this article, she explores the roots of samplers’ popularity. This article appears in the May/June 2018 issue of Quiltmaker, which includes full patterns for 6 spectacular sampler quilts.

Samples are wonderful things. When you’re shopping for things like groceries or beauty supplies, a sample lets you try out something new without having to commit to a large purchase before knowing if you’ll even like it.

Sampler quilts have held a similar appeal for almost two centuries. Composed of a variety of unique blocks, they let quilters try out different patterns and techniques for a solo project, or contribute a single block to a large quilt being made by many hands.

Nowhere else can a quilter put the range of his or her skills on display in one place like in a sampler. Consider the iconic Dear Jane quilt, a stunning piece completed by Jane Stickle in 1863 that contains 169 unique 5” blocks, or elaborately appliqued Baltimore Album quilts.

History of Sampler Quilts: Album Quilt by Charlotte Gillingham

Album Quilt, 126″x 97″, 1842-43, by Charlotte
Gillingham. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs.
Levis Lloyd Mann, Mrs. H. Maxwell Langdon, Mrs.
George K. Helbert, Mrs. Nelson D. Warwick, and
Mrs. Granville B. Hopkins, granddaughters of Samuel
Padgett Hancock, 1945-35-1.

Samplers are a uniquely American innovation in quilting. Until the early 19th century, most quilts made in the U.S. were similar to those made in Europe, where medallion quilts were all the rage. Starting in the early 1800s, American quiltmakers began designing quilts to feature blocks of the same size, but not necessarily the same pattern, laid out in a grid. In fact, for a few decades, pieced samplers were as prevalent as one- or two-block quilts.

Samplers were made for myriad reasons. They could be used to document how to make a variety of blocks, an artifact of a young, mobile country where women might move far away from those who taught them to sew and no longer have continued access to experienced quilters. Some early samplers feature block designs that haven’t been documented elsewhere in single-block quilts; perhaps these rare blocks were “orphans,” the results of their makers’ experiments with original designs that didn’t go any further.

Sampler quilts have also always had a strong social, communal component, often used as gifts from a group of people or as fundraisers for the local community. The 1840s saw a rapid rise in the trend of Friendship, Album or Signature quilts, which were popular gifts to give someone leaving the community for the frontier. Presentation quilts from the 1850s were more formal than Friendship quilts, usually made to commemorate a major event in the life of a prominent member of the community, often a clergyman, and were usually a group effort. Though still intended as functional bedding, they were more elaborately designed and were meant to be decorative as well, frequently featuring pieced and appliqued blocks.

History of Sampler Quilts: Mennonite Sampler

Mennonite Sampler, 70″x 82″, circa 1880, by an
unknown maker. Laura Fisher’s FISHER HERITAGE, NYC.

The opportunities to socialize outside the home offered by participating in group quilting projects are well documented in the private diaries of 19th-century women. Making quilts to raise funds for a church or benevolent society also allowed women opportunities to participate in the public sphere at a time when women’s roles were narrowly defined around hearth and home.

Though some samplers made in the first few decades of the 1900s have survived, overall they declined in popularity in the early 20th century but experienced a resurgence in the 1980s. They have also been adopted by the 21st-century modern quilting movement, with many samplers featuring block designs both traditional and original prominently featured on social media and at modern quilt shows.

Though the techniques and styles may have changed over the years, the reasons why people make sampler quilts haven’t changed much at all. Whether intended as a way to explore lots of different block patterns, as a gift for a friend or important community member, to raise funds for charity, or simply to strengthen the ties that bind a group of quilters together, nothing represents the quilt as metaphor better than a sampler.

“An album quilt is a very pretty idea. A lady gives the size of the square she wishes to each of her lady friends who are willing to contribute to her quilt. They make a square to their own taste, putting a white piece in the center on which they write their own name. Every lady’s autograph adorns her own square.”
Ladies Hand Book of Fancy and Ornamental Work, 1859

History of Sampler Quilts: Sampler Quilt

Sampler, 74″x 94″, circa 1920-1940, by an unknown
maker probably in Indiana. Ardis and Robert James
Collection 2006.043.0123. International Quilt Study
Center & Museum.

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