A sampler is a piece of embroidered cloth often marked with alphabets, numerals, decorative elements and signature information which became a diploma of female educational accomplishment. A marking sampler visually recorded the voices of the sampler-maker, her teacher, and their culture.

A mission sampler is a hand-embroidered piece of cloth, revealing literacy, numeracy and ornament, made at a Mission station. Surviving Mission samplers represent one of the few places where the voices of the women who lived and sewed at Mission stations in Aotearoa, both Maori and Pakeha, can be discerned.

By Vivien Caughley

Missionary women

Women at Christian Mission Stations after 1814 were more than just the wives of missionaries. Mission homes were filled with their families, Mission visitors, and a small but constant number of Māori men, women and children. Dinah Hall, Hannah King and Jane Kendall, New Zealand's first three Church Missionary Society (CMS) wives, all left Britain between 1807 and 1813 with a full understanding of a European woman’s role in the creation, care and maintenance of cloth, even though women’s official duties in a Mission Station were hardly mentioned anywhere in 1814. Some of the earliest activities recorded between Māori and Pākehā women in New Zealand involve washing linen, sewing garments and household articles, and knitting. On 22 June 1815 Hannah King successfully taught a Māori girl to make a European-styled garment for herself in the King home, across the language barrier, encouraged by the other women from both cultures who were present, and recorded by a European man for his like-minded European readers elsewhere.

New Zealand Mission samplers

The three New Zealand Mission samplers currently known to exist were made in two Mission stations by missionary daughters. Their teachers were their mothers and/or their sisters. A fourth Mission sampler is only known about from archival Mission records. This sampler-maker was an unidentified Māori woman. All four samplers are capable of revealing long-hidden and long-silent voices of women, from both cultures, and their noteworthy situations in New Zealand’s early Mission stations.

The "sampler" marked by "Oreo"

The “sampler” marked by “Oreo”, with both words in quotation marks in the original record, was successfully sent by missionary John King to his employers in London enclosed in a letter dated 1 December 1820. "Oreo" had lived with the Kings for upwards of three years. The sampler has not been publicly recognised since 22 August 1821. Responding to what he could see, the London correspondent then removed the quotation marks and assumed that the unidentified sampler-maker with her unstated purpose was a child in the instruction of the Mission. This enigmatic sampler, with its equally enigmatic story, represents an early and uniquely New Zealand woman’s voice, expressed in her own way, in Britain.

Jane Holloway King and Elizabeth Marsden King

The pair of samplers embroidered by two daughters of John and Hannah King together display five scripture texts as well as alphabets, numerals, decorative motifs, a self-evident level of technical mastery and more voices from the King home. Jane Holloway King, their eldest daughter, signed her sampler with unusual emphasis on her name and date of birth. Jane was born on “Feb the 10 1818” at the Rangihoua Mission. Elizabeth Marsden King, their youngest daughter, signed her name and added “Tepuna” and the date of making, "1853". The name "Tepuna" was the Mission station where the King family was based from 1832. Even though mention of either of these samplers has yet to be found in any Mission records, their probable dates of making strongly suggest the proactive involvement of their father, with scripture selection, and their mother, with choices of materials and techniques. The design template is currently not known to be used elsewhere. The selected scriptures are capable of being read on a number of levels. Depending on your frame of reference, this pair of samplers, when seen side by side, stand not only as exquisitely hand-crafted statements from women living in a remote, biculturally pivotal place, but also as unsent letters with prophetic scriptural messages. At a personal level, they represent tokens of profound respect for the legacy of both parents by their daughters.

Elizabeth Marsden King, sampler. Inscribed: "Elizabeth Marsden King Tepuna 1853"; Isaiah 52:7 and Isaiah 35:10

© All Rights Reserved Te Waimate Mission

Celia Brown

The fourth New Zealand Mission sampler was made by Celia Brown, daughter of the CMS missionaries Reverend Alfred Nesbit Brown and his first wife, Charlotte. Celia grew up in Tauranga at Te Papa Mission Station, today known as The Elms. On 4 September 1847 ten-year-old Celia sent a letter to her father, who was then in Auckland, enclosing her small, simple marking sampler. Celia wrote that her sampler was now completed, thanks to her mother's help. Whether the Browns knew of the story of the “sampler” marked by “Oreo” remains an open question.

Celia Brown, sampler.

© All Rights Reserved Kinder House Society, Parnell

Global Mission Samplers

Although New Zealand's Mission samplers and stories are unique, they also form a distinct chapter in a larger Mission story. They can be benchmarked with CMS Mission samplers made in Sierra Leone and India, a London Missionary Society sampler from Samoa, and American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions samplers from Hawaii, at the very least. The likelihood of more Mission samplers being identified is strong, although numbers that survive may be small. Their study will enable our current understanding of all these women's voices, expressed in their own ways, to grow in breadth and depth, and our appreciation of their cultural significance to increase.

Header image: Jane Holloway King, sampler,  Auckland Museum, T718 

Inscribed: "Jane Holloway King Her Work Born Feb the 10 1818"; Ecclesiates 1:12, Matthew 6: 20-21 and Revelation 22:5

Crafting Aotearoa 

This article is part of a collection of 52 essays that form an online companion to the book, Crafting Aotearoa. Spanning three centuries of making and thinking in Aotearoa New Zealand and the wider Moana (Pacific), this book looks at the artistic practices that, at different times and for different reasons, have been described by the term craft. Crafting Aotearoa tells previously untold stories of craft in Aotearoa New Zealand, so that the connections, as well as the differences and tensions, can be identified and explored. This book proposes a new idea of craft – one that acknowledges Pākehā, Māori and wider Moana histories of making, as well as diverse community perspectives towards objects and their uses and meanings.

Edited by Karl Chitham, Kolokesa U Māhina-Tuai and Damian Skinner

Hardcover book published by Te Papa Press

RRP $94.00

Buy now


Caughley, Vivien. 'Womens Voices - Mission Samplers', Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Published: 11 11 2019.

Further Reading

Vivien Caughley, “Women’s Marks: The King Family Samplers” pp. 110-127 in Allan Davidson, Stuart Lange, Peter Lineham & Adrienne Puckey, eds., “Te Rongopai 1814. Takoto Te Pai: Bicentenary Reflections on Christian Beginnings and Developments in Aotearoa New Zealand” (Auckland: General Synod Office, 2014)

Vivien Caughley, “New Zealand’s Historic Samplers: our stitched stories” (Batemans, Auckland, 2014)

Vivien Caughley, “Her Civilising Mission: Discovering Hannah King through her textiles” in [Australasian] History of Education Review, Issue 38:1, January 2009, pp.16–28.

Vivien Caughley, "Oreo :X: A New Voice" in Context: dress/fashion/textiles. (Auckland N.Z.: New Zealand Costume & Textile Section of the Auckland Museum Institute 2003-), Issue 39, Spring 2019.