A is for apple . . . has provided the foundation not only for generations
of beginning readers but for many young stitchers as well. If you're
lucky enough to have inherited great-grandmother's ABC treasure, you have
a piece of handiwork that represents part of the nearly
four-hundred-year-old tradition of needle worked samplers.
Stitched lettering has served several purposes during its history.
Originally stitchers used the alphabet to put their initials or name on a
finished piece, but they also practiced embroidering those letters used to
identify the household's linen and clothing. In households of nobility,
personal status or social rank was sometimes added: for example, coronet
or crown motifs appeared above initials such as "K" for King, "P" for
Prince, "D" for Duke, "M" for Marquis, "E" for Earl, "V" for Viscount, or
"B" for Baron. The same crown patterns and initials were common elements
on early foreign samplers and may have suggested affection for the
stitcher's sovereign ruler.
Because the earliest surviving embroidery from the Middle Ages was used
for church purposes, it contains not only religious imagery but religious
writing. Original ecclesiastical garments and altar frontlets still in
existence show drawings of the twelve apostles and various saints, with
lettering identifying each. Text such as "Gloria in Excelsis Deo"
accompanied embroidered angels or described various elements of an
Another function of lettering was to record a piece's completion date, the
stitcher's birth date, or even the dates of family members' deaths.
Stitched lettering formed inscriptions, verses, and sometimes important
messages for the embroiderer.
In addition to upper and lower case letters, numbers from one to ten and
the Lord's Prayer would also be included. A small cross-shaped motif
placed before and after the text signified that the child should cross
himself at the beginning and end of a lesson. "And if you know the Christ
cross row, you soon may spell and read" was a common saying of the time.
This same cross shape appears on many embroidered samplers, both before
and after the alphabet.
When examining early alphabets common to sampler making, it is obvious
that omissions and strange shapes occur. Understanding and knowing the
history of the alphabet explains these peculiarities and sampler alphabets
can provide a glimpse into the changing written word of the English
language from the 16th century on. As many as twenty styles of lettering
in varying sizes and shapes appeared on English stitchery from British
orphanage schools. One version of the alphabet appeared on a mid-to-late
17th century English piece stitched in cut and drawn thread work with
buttonhole bars, a technique known today as Italian Reticella embroidery.
All these alphabet styles were variations of Latin, the major alphabet of
Rome which became the most widespread alphabet in the world and is the one
we use today --- with a few minor changes. The writing of Old English had
been strongly influenced by the Romans, who brought the Latin alphabet
with them when they first occupied Britain. Today's capital letters go
back to the Romans almost unchanged. By the end of the first century
A.D., the Latin alphabet was well established and contained 23 letters.
Missing was the letter "W;" "U" was not differentiated from "V," and "J"
was not distinguished from "I."
By the 10th century two variants of the letter "V" appeared
interchangeably. The letter "V" tended to be used at the beginning of a
word and the letter "U" in the middle of a word. Also, during the Middle
Ages, the "U" shape would appear on monument writing and the "V" form in
manuscripts. Eventually each letter came to represent its own sound.
Modern-day stitchers may be familiar with some of the variations or
omissions of written letters that occurred on early needlework. The
letter "Q" was often worked as a reversed "P," although both symbols were
seen together in some alphabets, and sometimes the letter "Z" were left
out of the lettering, since it was seldom needed.
The "W" sound was used interchangeably with "V" and "U" symbols until
eventually it became pronounced in English. The "W" symbol appeared after
the Norman conquest of England to keep it distinct from the French "V"
sound. During the 11th century this symbol was written with a "VV" or
"UU" shape. Eventually the double V (VV) was connected as a "W" but
pronounced double U.
The "J" symbol became an elusive addition to the lettering system during
the 15th century. Originally this letter was a medieval variant of the
"I." The J-form originated as a fancy "I," given a flourish to the left of
the "I" shape. Although a symbol existed to represent this sound, the
letter "I" continued to serve for "I" and "J." Sampler inscriptions well
into the 18th century show the "I" being used in place of the "J" symbol
(for example, the name Jane would be spelled "Iane). Sometime after the
year 1820 the "J" took on its own shape to become the tenth letter of the
When cursive handwriting developed from a combination of upper and lower
case letters, a strange symbol representing the letter "S" also evolved.
It resembled a lower case "f" without the horizontal bar. (Example Û.) The
"S" as we know it today was usually used to begin or end a word, but the
two forms can appear in various combinations in the same word with no
apparent pattern, and the use of two shapes for the letter "S" persisted
into the first quarter of the 19th century.
The embroidery of letters has played an important role in art needlework
history. Girls old enough to hold a needle were taught sewing skills.
Samplers of the 17th through the 19th centuries were almost always
products of the private boarding or day schools, and usually the sampler
maker's age was somewhere between six and 12 years old. By the beginning
of the 18th century, alphabets were included in nearly every sampler, and
stitching samplers became a part of women's education of that era. In
1711 John Brightland wrote Grammar of the English Tongue, which included a
sampler alphabet for the needlework student. Victorian era author S. F.
A. Caulfield later wrote that "no girl (was) considered as proficient in
the art until she could work in cross stitch all the letters of the
alphabet upon a sampler."
Cross stitch was not the only stitch used for alphabets. Common
alternatives used to produce a clear outline were the four-sided, eyelet
and satin stitches. American samplers favored the rice stitch and three
variations of the esteemed marking stitch.
By the 19th century, intricate sampler making declined, and most of the
late 19th century samplers are composed entirely of cross-stitched
alphabets. Alphabet samplers have continued to be a traditional favorite,
serving as the common thread of sampler-making history.
(This article appeared in Cross Stitch Sampler magazine, Summer 1992 issue, pages 22 and 23.)