A Sampler Mystery

It was a very hot summer day as my husband, Greg, and I drove out to a country antique fair. For several years during the summer months it had become one of our monthly rituals. As we arrived at the fair grounds where this event was held, Greg went off immediately to find some cold water. Instead of just waiting for him, I had spied a booth overflowing with old textiles. I told him just to come find me there. Through the years I have seen so many textile booths at flea markets and antique fairs. They are always enjoyable, but after awhile it seems as though there is a sameness about each of these booths. As I passed the time waiting, I went through one of the baskets of needlework and old fabric. It had all of the usual things including a nice stamped sampler from the 30’s. I have several samplers of that type made by my grandmother. They seem to be a popular item at the shows.

There were a lot of other ordinary bits and pieces in this basket, and then I saw something that I actually had a hard time believing that I was seeing. I kept looking at it, and then I looked at the price. It was $37. It was less than the stamped sampler. Fearing that maybe this had been miss-marked, I hesitated to ask the dealer any questions. Finally, I got up the courage to ask her if she knew anything about the needlework in my hands.

She said, “Oh yes, this is a sampler from 1913. You can see where part of the date has been picked out, but I can do a little better on the price.”

“Oh, great,” I answered, not believing what I had heard.

“How much do you want for the sampler?”

“I can do $35,” she replied.

“Fine”, I said. “I’ll take it!”

As my husband returned with his water he noticed the bag with my new purchase.

“You’ve already bought something? I have only been gone five minutes!”

I tried to explain to him that I had probably made the biggest find ever. I showed him the sampler I bought and explained all the reasons why I thought it was at least from the mid 1800’s.

He then questioned me skeptically, “Why was it so cheap then?”

He didn’t get it. I would have to show him my book, Miller’s Samplers, How to Compare and Value by Stephen and Carol Huber.

Part 2

Once we arrived home, I found my Sampler book by the Hubers. We began to look through it like detectives.

As I thumbed through the pages, I noticed that my sampler looked a lot like the Scottish samplers pictured. My sampler was smaller and in poor shape, but it was unmistakably Scottish. My husband was impressed…so was I!


The Huber’s explain the outstanding characteristics of Scottish samplers on the two pages in their book they devote to these samplers. The first characteristic is their embellished letters with either the whole alphabet or just a partial alphabet, which they say may have originated on the Continent. Also, these samplers usually have pairs of initials that they think are probably the relatives of the needleworker. Peacocks and names with the preface of “Mac” or “Mc” point toward a Scottish origin. Finally, to me the most exciting thing was that fewer Scottish samplers exist. Because of their small population base, Scottish samplers are more collectible!



Part 3

I was so excited, but questions began to invade my mind about so many things. The first was the “N y 13” what did that mean? Where did Isabella live? Was she from a city, or did she live in the country? Did she move to America, if not how did her sampler get here? How in the world could I ever find out anything about her?

Fortunately, two months after I bought this sampler Greg and I were going to spend a semester in Cambridge, England. I thought, if I can just talk to Carol Humphrey of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (who is a sampler scholar), maybe she could answer my questions.

I made an appointment with her once we arrived in Cambridge. She was extremely helpful. I still did not have any answers, only the beginning tools to make discoveries. Carol suggested that I start by looking on the Mormon web site, which has the largest collection of free genealogies. Then there is also ancestry.com. I guess I hesitate to sign up for that site because it appears as though it will greatly increase my unwanted mail. Another thing Carol suggested was the verse in Isabella’s sampler. She said it was more than likely a stanza from a hymn. We discussed the “N y 13”. Carol thought it could be an abbreviation for “ Now year 13.” In other words, Isabella started it when she was 10, but finished it when she was 13. It made sense to me because of all of the specialty stitches she used. Click on the sampler to get a close-up view of it.

Here is all the other information I have found out so far from the free sites online. It frankly isn’t much. I think that the Macara family is part of the MacGregor clan from the area of Perthshire, Scotland. I believe, as does Carol Humphrey, that this sampler was executed anywhere from 1810’s to 1860’s. That’s all I know. When we returned home from England that summer I went back out to the antique fair. The woman who sold me the sampler was there. I asked her if she knew where she had purchased my sampler. She said that it had been part of an estate sale in the western suburbs of Chicago, St. Charles she thought. It had been just one piece in a large bag of various textiles that she bought altogether.






  Part 4

Perhaps one hundred and fifty years from today someone who loves needlework will find a sampler you created either in an attic of family descendents, or at a flea market (hopefully, not!!!). They might marvel at the beautiful stitching, and wonder about the name, and the person who created it. I am glad I rescued Isabella’s needlework because I love and completely appreciate her beautiful sampler.

I have said this over and over, but it bears repeating. When you do a piece of needlework not only do you need to sign and date it, but it would be so wonderful to have a book that chronicled all of your projects providing more details about each piece.

I still am searching for more information about Isabella Macara. While I have a collection of samplers, for some reason this neglected one seems special. I wanted to share what I know about this sampler with you. Any information I receive about Isabella Macara, I will add to this sampler mystery. I would invite you to help me acquire more pieces of this puzzle. The information shared could be invaluable to those of us who love and collect needlework.

Select a portion of the sampler to view a more detailed image

©2014 Mary Beale

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