One of my favorite aspects of playing with stitches is the resulting sample cloths that are peppered with a variety of color, stitch trials and errors, and other random bits of embroidery.
While preparing for summer embroidery classes for kids, one necessary item in each kit that we prepared was a blank piece of fabric, 10″ square. These pieces were linen of various types, pulled out of my stash, cut, rinsed, pressed, and surged along the edges. Their purpose is to give the kids a decent piece of fabric to practice on, so that they can master individual stitches before applying them to their projects.
As we were preparing the classes, I noticed that one of us called the piece of fabric “sampler fabric” and the other called it “a doodle cloth.” In class, we find ourselves each using our own pet term.
There’s a slight difference between a sampler and a doodle cloth, at least when it comes to concept, especially considering the way the term sampler has developed throughout the ages.
Technically, a sampler and a doodle cloth really aren’t that much different in concept. A sampler is just a collection of samples of stitches and techniques.
But over the years, the sampler has become synonymous with a piece of work that has some kind of purposeful organizational structure.
A doodle cloth rarely has any considered organizational approach. It’s just a cloth that you practice on randomly. You find a blank spot on the piece of fabric where there’s enough room to try out a stitch or technique, and once you have it down, you usually switch over to the project you’re working on, where you apply what you’ve learned to whatever you’re stitching.
In this article here on damp stretching and blocking embroidery projects, I used a doodle cloth to demonstrate how to damp stretch and block fabric. There’s absolutely no structure to the stitching. I was doodling stitches to photograph how they are done or what they look like when they’re finished. I had absolutely no organizational approach in mind, and I just squeezed in stitches in spaces available.
The resulting piece of fabric, covered with stitches, might be fun to look at, but it doesn’t really fit the notion of what we consider a sampler today.
When we hear the term “sampler” today, we normally think of a piece of fabric with rows of stitching, often counted; maybe a border, maybe some spot motifs, sometimes a house and flora and fauna; and then, often, some kind of alphabet or verse – and normally signed and dated. It is something that is kept; it is a clear record of progress or a demonstration of a specific set of skills.
Examples of Samplers that are Different
Yet, a sampler can go beyond this concept, too.
The leafy tree you see in this article, for example, is a sampler of sorts. The purpose of it was to sample different stitches for embroidering leaves, all contained in the layout of a contemporary tree.
This floral silk shading sampler pattern comes from a design that was purposely drawn so that the stitcher can “sample” different methods of working silk shading.
In a needle arts class I taught years ago to high school students, this spot sampler was our learning playground, but we approached it with a specific thought for organization, so that the students could document progress and refer back to the sampler for specific information.
The swirl sampler and the random stitch samplers shown in this article both have a definite design layout and purpose. The purpose of the swirl sampler was to demonstrate certain types of line stitches. I started with a pattern on the fabric so that the result was something a little more organized to look at it when finished. The random stitch sampler was meant to document a variety of stitches, which were worked with specific colors, thread types, and layout in mind, for photographing.
This lattice sampler started as a rather jumbled design, but the stitches aren’t entirely random. I planned which stitches I wanted to use as I went along, and I worked with a specific color scheme.
This drawn thread work and whitework sampler is somewhat random in layout due to the small (and sometimes large) spots of stitching here and there, but it was intended to record a specific variety of techniques in a clear enough layout for photographing those techniques.
This circle sampler is a more modern approach to sampling stitches and techniques. It involved an organizational structure of large and small circles, specifically arranged, and a particular color scheme and collection of threads, chosen on purpose.
I think my point here (but I’m not really sure!) is that we approach things differently, based on the names we give them.
When I think “sampler,” I think a piece of embroidery with at least some sort of organizational structure to it, meant to demonstrate techniques or materials, often resulting in a decorative piece to some degree, and thought out in advance. I consider it something to be saved.
When I think “doodle cloth,” I think of a scrap of cloth approached with no organizational forethought, often stitched on with scraps of thread of no particular type or color, that serves a basic utilitarian purpose.
Once that purpose if fulfilled, the doodle cloth might go by the wayside, even into the bin! That’s not to say it can’t be saved or it shouldn’t be saved – I generally save mine because they make a good demonstration record to share with people when talking about specific stitches. But in the end, a doodle cloth is usually a rather messy conglomeration of complete and incomplete starts and stops, trial and error – and pretty much decipherable only by the stitcher.
Use One and Keep It, Whatever it’s Called!
But whatever you call it, if you’re just learning to stitch, set yourself up with a doodle cloth or a piece of “sampler fabric” and practice your stitches on the side, before applying them to a project. You’ll be much more pleased with the outcome of your embroidery projects projects if you practice first and then apply.
And as you progress through your embroidery journey, building a repertoire of stitches and techniques, you’ll develop a nice record of where you’ve come from and where you’re going!