The first samplers, known as the "row" type, were strips of linen about seven inches wide (the looms then in use did not produce wider goods) and about three feet long. On such, with little or no" attempt at decorative design, women worked each new stitch in horizontal rows as the name indicates. Kept rolled on a stick, it was a ready reference that could be brought out to consult as pattern books are today. Because they adhere to the general proportions and since the needlework is usually done in rows across the material, the door panels of the Pennsylvania Dutch are dearly in the row sampler tradition and thus stylistic survivals of this early type of needlework.
By the middle of the eighteenth century most American women ceased to make samplers of the row type and those done on square or nearly square linen came into vogue. Because of a decorative border surrounding the main design, they were known as "frame" samplers. Soon they became the medium whereby little girls demonstrated their skill with the needle. Specimens of this type were made everywhere in America. But in the. Pennsylvania Dutch region they seem largely to have dung to the earlier style and out of it evolved the door panel.
The type of sampler from which these panels are descended is mentioned as early as the sixteenth century, although no examples appear to have survived. An entry in the household accounts of Elizabeth of York, wife of Henry VII of England, runs, "To Thomas Fissch, for an elne of lynnyn cloth for a sampler for the quene." Supposedly, Elizabeth took the usual royal interest in needlework but her sampler, if still extant, would be found to be merely a record of the stitches and designs used in the intricate embroideries of the time.
It was not until the beginning of the seventeenth century that the sampler ceased to be a pattern book for women who had little or no mastery of the art of reading and became in itself a decorative piece of needlework. Then the growing practice of marking household linens had a direct and important effect on the sampler, since the name was first embroidered on it before being worked on the pieces of household linen. From this evolved ornamental letters of the alphabet and numerals as well as a more orderly arrangement in rows of the designs.
In the latter, birds, flowers, animals, geometric symbols, and even human figures were worked in the stitches then in vogue. Of these the most common and earliest was the cross-stitch. This in itself dates back almost to the beginning of things, examples of it having been found in the tombs of Egypt as well as those of prehistoric races of South America.
By mid-century, the sampler had developed into an ornamental panel fine enough for any woman to be proud to sign. It was made in England, on the Continent, and in the newly settled colonies of America. A fine 'example of New England origin is now to be seen in the Essex Institute, Salem, Massachusetts. It is all white with an elaborate pattern in outwork and was made in 1628 by no less a person than Anne Gower, first wife of Governor John Endicott.
As for the designs, they apparently came from all quarters of the world. One writer of the period states that they were:
Collected with much praise and Industrie
In the descendants of these old row samplers, the ornamental door panels, one finds a great variety of designs and ways of achieving decorative effects. The earliest ones are of linen and employ cross-stitch embroidery, drawn work, and even bands of knitted lace. There is also an occasional cotton one decorated with a stencil design or with appliqué in colours, somewhat after the manner of the early nineteenth century quilts. Still others of linen use a cross-stitch pattern in wool of the brilliant colours common to the Pennsylvania Dutch.
Those that display their sampler origin most strongly have two or more rows of ornamental letters of the alphabet. Here, oddly enough, the letter J is invariably missing and an occasional letter is repeated to avoid a gap in the row. Sometimes one finds the initials of the maker and the date. Rarely does the full name appear and never, as was frequent in New England frame samplers, are family records embroidered on these panels. Such records were for the fracture writings common to the area.
The other decorative elements, done in either cross-stitch or drawn work, are akin to those found on their painted chests, their sgraffito ware, and their fracture. When the cross-stitch is the medium, an unusually beautiful shade of rose-colored linen thread is often employed. In this may be found the geometric star that appears on their barns and is supposed to ward off evil spirits and make their cattle healthy and prolific; the eagle, symbol of freedom; the peacock, weather prophet and symbol of resurrection; the dove, indicative of harmony; and various animals to which the Pennsylvania Dutch has always been markedly kind and considerate, providing barns for them before building a house for himself. Houses and trees appear, too. The latter are probably a form of the well-known Tree of Life pattern. Of the floral designs, the tulips, a favourite Dutch design, is most usual. This is particularly in evidence in the appliqué patterns.
All in all, these panels, besides preserving an old and almost forgotten form of decorative needlework, are in their detail, colour, and design as characteristic of the area in which they are found as the painted chest, the highly coloured china, and other items of this distinctive group of people.