An Unfinished Darning Sampler

Last year I went to the Fries Museum to see their collection of darning samplers. Little did I know that almost a year later, I would own my own antique darning sampler. Note: if you want to see the following pictures in close-up, simply click on them to see the larger version.

Darning Sampler 1892 Front

My darning sampler was started in 1892 by ‘EAE’, but never finished. I have very little additional information about it

A good excuse to read up on darning samplers and I’d like to share with you some of the things I’ve learnt.

Making darning samplers seemed to be particularly popular in The Netherlands, although you find them also in other countries. What follows comes from Dutch books that specifically talk about darning samplers (listed below) and reflect how things were in The Netherlands; I can only assume things might’ve been similar elsewhere.

Darning samplers seem to have been part of any girl’s education, rich or poor. All women were supposed to help out with household tasks, which included maintenance of clothes and linens. Girls and women ought to keep themselves occupied with useful things, and for those who needed to supplement their income, needlework was a respectable way of earning some extra money.

Darning sampler 1892 fancy darn front

A fancy darn with different patterns in the arms of the cross

Girls were often sent to a small girls’ boarding school (they were often called “French Boarding School” as the girls were also taught French), where needlework was part of the curriculum. It was also taught at orphanages to ensure orphaned girls would be able to look after themselves once they left. For those girls who were too busy during the day (they might have a job as a maid, or help run a household), there were also evening darning and sewing classes.

Needlecraft lessons included embroidery, knitting, sewing, and mending. Often girls started with a cross stitch sampler, practising the letters of the alphabet. Many households sent their laundry to the laundry house and by marking all the linen, they could all be returned cleaned and bleached to the rightful owners. Often these samplers started with the alphabet repeated a few times (making sure the letters were embroidered exactly the same and lined up: an exercise in counting the threads), and then little motifs were added, which could be used for decorative purposes.

As I understand it, girls started with the easier embroidery sampler first, and then moved on to the darning sampler. And in the darning sampler there was also a build-up of complexity in technique. One started off with damask darning, which is nowadays still used as a decorative technique. This simply required the darner to pick up threads from the sound fabric. You can see this in the centre square of my sampler: each of the borders show a different damask darning pattern.

Darning sampler 1892 centre square front

The centre square shows the relatively easy technique of damask darning

Darning sampler 1892 centre square back

The back of the centre square shows that using star stitch (a reversible stitch) for the initials and numbers makes for a very neat finish

After the damask darn they moved on to the real deal: darning across an actual hole. A hole was neatly cut out and the edges whipped to stop them from fraying. First all the vertical threads (the warp, so to speak) were put across the hole by starning some simple damask darning a bit away from the hole, span the thread across the hole and then darn in a bit more on the other side. When turning direction to work back, a little loop was left at the end. Used linen was usually washed a lot, so wouldn’t shrink anymore, but the new darning thread used for the repair would shrink upon the first wash, so these loops allowed for that. The horizontal threads were woven in in a similar fashion, weaving them over and under the warp threads. The first hole (top right in my sampler) would be done in a simple even weave, and then slowly the complexity increased to other weave patterns, such as twill weaves, bird’s eye, satin, and checks.

Darning sampler 1892 even weave darn front

An even weave darn. The irregularity suggests this might have been the first proper darn made on the sampler

Darning sampler 1892 even weave darn back

The back shows whip stitched edges, loops to allow for shrinkage, and also a decorative hem

Colours and materials for repair change through the centuries according to fashion. These practice darns were usually done in coloured threads on a plain white or unbleached ground, so that it was easy to see what you were doing, but also allowing the teacher to spot any mistakes more readily. Old darning samplers often used fine silks, linen or cotton threads on a linen or cotton ground. Less common was the use of wool, although it became more popular when the ‘Berlin wools’ came into fashion for needlepoint. Older darning samplers were often executed with very fine threads, and the holes repaired were rather large and therefore presented a real challenge. The threads used are slowly getting a bit less fine, and likewise the fabric used became coarser throughout the centuries; the variety of techniques seemed to go down as well. Old darning samplers included complex repairs at the edge of the fabric, and the most difficult of all was the darning of a corner. A length of ribbon or tape was used as a corner edge, which was sometimes removed after the darn was completed. Later darning samplers don’t show these complicated repairs, and also the size of the holes to be darned became smaller. This could be due to a number of reasons, but one of them is that for larger holes and corners a sewn-in patch is a much stronger repair than a hand-sewn darn could ever be.

Darning sampler 1892 bird's eye darn front

A bird’s eye darn in two colours

Darning sampler 1892 bird's eye darn back

The bird’s eye darn looks just as neat at the back

My darning sampler seems to be typical of its time: no complex edge or corner darns, and none of the holes are larger than 3x3cm. For whatever reason, this one was left unfinished. One darn in the lower left corner only has the warp threads darned in in a herringbone pattern, and there also the start of repairing a diagonal slash. This repair was complicated, as the edges of the slash are on the diagonal, so liable to stretch out. This darning sampler would’ve been worked on over a good few months. Girls would usually have darning lessons a few hours a week, and it took them about a year to complete a sampler. I will never know why my darning sampler was never finished, but the research in the books I have show that often girls either couldn’t afford the fees, or were not able to attend classes due to other duties taking higher priority. In the country side for instance, there were no lessons during harvest time as everybody, young and old, had to help bring in the harvest.

Darning sampler 1892 unfinished darn


The start of a herringbone darn, shown on the back

Darning sampler 1892 diagonal slash darn front

The vertical threads were already completed on this diagonal slash, and the horizontal threads were just started

Darning sampler 1892 diagonal slash darn back

The diagonal slash darn is the only one that shows a knot

The mystery remains, and that is part of the beauty of it. Even if I don’t know a thing about who made this sampler or why it was never completed, it represents an important part of young women’s social history, and will provide me with food for thought and inspiration for years to come.

Darning sampler 1892 back

The back of the darning sampler shows neat finishes

Short bibliography (apologies to non-Dutch readers, but all these books are in Dutch):

Kipp, A; Schipper-van Lottum, MGA; Van der Vlerk, L. Nuttig en Fraai; Zuidhollandse merk- en stoplappen. Becht, Haarlem, 1987.

Schipper-van Lottum, MGA. Merk- en Stoplappen; schoolwerk van Amsterdamse meisjes uit vier eeuwen. Second print, Wereldbibliotheek, Amsterdam, 1980

Schipper-van Lottum, MGA. Stop- en borduurlappen; geschiedenis en techniek. Becht, Haarlem, 1987.

Smith-Sanders, B. Merk- en Stoplappen uit het Burgerweeshuis Amsterdam. Venlo, 2013.

23 Replies to “An Unfinished Darning Sampler”

  1. Oh Tom How gorgeous is this????? Surely that’s a linen background, isn’t it? Samplers are becoming my flax theme for the Guild exhibition in October – I’m going to try to scale up my linen filet lace and have learned how to knot a fishing net so that I can ‘copy’ the pattern in the attached, using our own spun linen obviously!! Fiona has a large selection of old French lace pattern books… oooh. When can we meet? love xsx

    1. Hey Sue. I’m not entirely sure whether it’s linen. In the books I have the cotton background is often spun in a linen effect and I find it difficult to tell the difference in my sampler. I think I have some books that explain how to knot to make the netting, it might be somewhat different from fish nets.

  2. What a lovely sampler – how lovely to have it. The way you have written and illustrated this is really interesting and informative. The quality of the work on the sampler itself is astounding.

  3. Hi Tom,

    I am always excited when one of your posts lands in my inbox. I love them.

    I wonder if the knot you mention may have been cut away later if the sample had been finished. There are a few embroidery techniques that begin with a knot that is discarded at a later stage.


  4. Absolutely fascinating! And so much better to have an unfinished sampler, to get a glimpse inside the process! I have been looking for one to buy as well, having been captivated by your earlier posts on the subject—this one is surely a pip! Keep darning (and writing)

  5. Tom, this informative and beautiful post is very inspiring. Thank you for investing as much time as you do to share with us online. The sampler is really lovely.

  6. Thanks so much for sharing your sampler and so much information about darning samplers. I had seen your previous posts and was delighted to see and recognize a darning sampler on display at Winterthur Museum last winter when I went to see the Downton Abbey costume exhibit. I find the structure of darning very accessible because I am a hand weaver, it is simply reproducing a woven structure with needle and thread, but it is fascinating to see the fine handwork that was required.

  7. Those samplers ‘blew me away’…I know that is a rather trite saying but that is how i felt looking at these, esp the link from the Berlin wools. Thank you.

  8. I always love your posts about darning. I have quite a few weeks of recuperation from surgery ahead of me so I *think* my favorite socks that need darning might just get some attention. You’ve inspired me again! Thank you! Lovely sampler, lovely writing too.

  9. In my youth I have darned many favorite socks, I would do a basic backstage type stitch and what a mess! This Wii inspire to up my game as I still enjoy the mending game.

  10. Hi Tom,

    I’ve enjoyed seeing your pages over the past several years. I will be traveling in Holland in about a month and wondered if you could suggest good places to see collections of Darning Samplers.

    1. Hi Janet, unfortunately I don’t know the museums in The Netherlands very well in this respect, as I only got interested in darning long after I moved to the UK. The Fries Museum visit was by special invitation as their darning samplers were not on display at the time (I don’t know if there are any in display now.) Sorry I can’t help you. Tom

  11. Thank you, Tom, for publishing pictures of the back of the sampler. In 2015, while in Amsterdam, I bought a chart for a darning sampler (“M. P. Joppe 1886” by Sabine Taterra-Gundacker) and I was studying it before starting it. Your pictures were so valuable in showing how to begin and end threads!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: