Most of the samplers people see today are decorative recreations of old ones. But a lot of early samplers weren’t intended for home furnishings: they were a practical record of techniques and approaches, as well as proof of the maker’s ability to use them.
A textbook (of literary devices, of art techniques, of embroidery stitches) is handy, of course.
But a roll of linen (or a dedicated sketchbook, or a file of deliberate writing exercises) goes so much further. It is a handy guide, yes, but it’s also a method for processing information from elsewhere, for knowing what it looks like when you do it to your ability and taste, of measuring that ability over time, of knowing your materials, collecting the particular approaches that you like and vividly recalling the approaches that didn’t work for you.
And beyond that, it’s a way of training your hands, of finding out your voice, of keeping your hands busy in quiet moments, and — sometimes — of creating a pleasing object after all.
Thoughts/exercises for artists and writers
- Consider how you approach exercises and activities. Could you collect them into an ongoing sampler of some kind? A running document of scraps or book of creative approaches that you’ve found particularly useful? A sketchbook dedicated just to collecting watercolour textures, or treatments of bark, or clouds, or (when the times allow), people? A roll of stitch samples? Could you start a long-term one, or keep a book for just a week?
- It’s also a nice way to dip into something you’d like to learn or be better at. Is there another medium (digital or oil or lino) you’ve wanted to try, or another genre, or something you need to know about for writing research? Or just something new and soothing you’ve idly been interested in.
- Consider when you can work on these things? Samplers often fit into the interstices of a day — a way to keep hands busy when talking or listening or watching, something that can be picked up between activities without any pressure of date or scale or being finished, a way to follow your curiousity.
- Imagine you are illustrating or writing a scene in which your character meets (or is) a Person Who Makes Things: a blacksmith, perhaps, or a seamstress, or a fly-fisherman. Sketch a quick outline of the scene and setting (in words or pictures). Now consider the process by which that Person Who Makes Things learned and practises their trade: samplers? master-pieces? a little trophy-wall of examples? And what does that show about them — do they love or hate their trade, work on it for joy or duty, are their samples utilitarian or whimsical? Add a few of those details to the scene, and see what it does to the texture and character of the story.