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A (needlework) sampler is a piece of embroidery produced as a demonstration or test of skill in needlework. It often includes the alphabet, figures, motifs, decorative borders and sometimes the name of the person who embroidered it and the date. The word sampler is derived from the Latin ‘exemplum’ - an example.
The earliest sampler extant is a spot sampler, ie. one having randomly scattered motifs, of the Nazca culture in Peru formerly in the Museum of Primitive Art, New York City. It is estimated to date from ca. 200 BC –300 AD. and is worked in cotton and wool pattern darning on a woven cotton ground. It has seventy-four figures of birds, plants and mythological beings. 
Coptic sampler fragments of silk on linen in double running stitch and pattern darning have been found in Egyptian burial grounds of 400–500 AD. These are pattern samplers having designs based on early Christian symbols.
The oldest surviving European samplers were made in the 16th and 17th centuries. As there were few pre-printed patterns available for needleworkers, a stitched model was needed. Whenever a needlewoman saw a new and interesting example of a stitching pattern, she would quickly sew a small sample of it onto a piece of cloth - her 'sampler'. The patterns were sewn randomly onto the fabric as a reference for future use, and the woman would collect extra stitches and patterns throughout her lifetime.
The first printed pattern book Furm oder Modelbüchlein was published by Johann Schönsperger the Younger of Augsburg in 1523, but it was not easily obtainable and a sampler was the most common form of reference available to many women. Pattern books were widely copied and issued by other publishers. Some are still available in reprint today. 
The earliest British dated surviving sampler, housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, was made by Jane Bostocke who included her name and the date 1598 in the inscription. It has pictorial figures above with border and all-over patterns below. The inscription reads: ″IANE:BOSTOCKE 1598 ALICE:LEE:WAS:BORNE:THE:23:OF:NOVEMBER:BEING:TWESDAY:IN:THE:AFTER:NOONE:1596″ 
A Dutch sampler dated 1585 survives in the Nederlands Openluchtmuseum in Arnhem.
Because very few samplers from the 16th century have been found it is not possible to generalize about their style and appearance. 17th Century English, Dutch, and German samplers were stitched on a narrow band of fabric 6–9 in (150–230 mm) wide. As fabric was very expensive, these samplers were totally covered with stitches. These were known as band samplers and valued highly, often being mentioned in wills and passed down through the generations. These samplers were stitched using a variety of needlework styles, threads, and ornament. Many of them were exceedingly elaborate, incorporating subtly shaded colours, silk and metallic embroidery threads, and using stitches such as Hungarian, Florentine, tent, cross, long-armed cross, two-sided Italian cross, rice, running, Holbein, Algerian eye and buttonhole stitches. The samplers also incorporated small designs of flowers and animals, and geometric designs stitched using as many as 20 different colors of thread. 
By the 18th century, samplers were a complete contrast to the scattered samples sewn earlier on. They became wider and more square, eventually with borders on all four sides. These samplers were stitched more to demonstrate knowledge than to preserve skill. The stitching of samplers was believed to be a sign of virtue, achievement and industry, and girls were taught the art from a young age.
Samplers are widely stitched today, some using kits purchased from needlework shops, some from chart-packs, and many from patterns available on the Internet or through e-mail from designers. Patterns range from simple using only one stitch, to complex, using 15 to 20 and more stitches. Designs range widely in style, from accurate reproductions of historic pieces to much more contemporary and modern styles. Many sampler reproductions are also available, copying colors and imperfect stitches from the originals.
The word "sampler" is sometimes inaccurately applied to any piece of needlework meant for display.
Materials used include aida cloth, evenweave, and linen fabrics, in cotton, linen, and man-made materials combined in more and more ways; and fibers from cotton floss to silk, rayon, viscose, and metallic.
- Sebba, Anne, Samplers, Five Centuries of a Gentle Craft, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1979. p. 6. ISBN 0-500-23300-4.
- Sebba, pp. 6–7.
- Banham, Joanna, ed. Encyclopedia of Interior Design, London and Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997. vol. 2 p. 858 ″Needlework″ ISBN 1-884964-19-2
- Sebba, pp. 25–27.
- Don, Sarah Traditional Samplers, Newton Abbot and London: David and Charles, 1986. pp. 11–14. ISBN 0-71538713-8
- Privy Purse Expenses of Elizabeth of York: Wardrobe Accounts of Edward IV at the Richard III Society site, retrieved February 20, 2007
- Fawdry, Marguerite, and Deborah Brown, The Book of Samplers, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1980, ISBN 0-312-09006-4
- A brief history of embroidery samplers
- Sampler history and design
- Old Sampler - Virtual Museum of Textile Arts
- Images of samplers from the collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
- Samplers at the Victoria and Albert Museum
- Victoria and Albert Museum Sampler story; Textiles
- Some More Modern Examples