Betty Ring, a Houston collector who has concentrated on American schoolgirl needlework, says she bought her very first sampler years ago because its colors went well in her kitchen. The sampler was done in 1830 by Anna Bell of Edinburgh, and it cost $30. In the years since, Mrs. Ring, through study, travel, and intensive research, has become one of the country's foremost authorities on schoolgirl samplers and pictorial needlework. With the renaissance of interest in antique needlework that has surged in the past few decades, she has also had to pay into the thousands of dollars for those relatively few ``spectacular'' pieces that connoisseurs look for today.
At the Williamsburg Antiques Forum recently she held an audience of both women and men enthralled while she shared her enthusiasm and knowledge. She illustrated those regional characteristics of needlework which make them important resources for the obscure history of women's education in early America.
``Very few people know what samplers are all about,'' Mrs. Ring says. ``Most still think that they were made at home. And they also like to think that children devised their own designs, though this was rarely the case. I try to direct credit for this most appealing form of naive art to those who deserve it -- the forgotten schoolmistresses of early America.''
Needlework in the 18th century, she points out, was considered the foremost art of the accomplished woman and so was taught at ``dame schools,'' finishing and boarding schools where girls might learn, as one Boston advertisement stated, ``flourishing embroidery, and all sorts of needlework, painting upon glass, filigree, writing, arithmetic, and singing song tunes.''
During the early 19th-century Federal period, Mrs. Ring says, an impressive assortment of academic subjects were offered as well, although what a girl most wanted to show when returning from boarding school, and what her mother most desired to see, was the girl's sampler or embroidery picture.
The majority of samplers and small needlework pictures that have survived from the two centuries -- 1640 to 1840 -- were made by young girls while attending schools. Most were created under the guidance of a schoolmistress in a classroom situation, where discipline and a certain competiveness contributed to their completion.
Instruction in the needle arts continued undiminished throughout the 17th and 18th centuries and well into the 19th century, evolving from the original pattern records and practice pieces into decorative exercises in embroidery technique.
But always, Mrs. Ring notes, samplers were not only valued as proofs of proficiency in the needle arts, but were treasured by parents and framed and hung on the wall or tucked carefully away for safekeeping. Later they were treasured by the makers themselves as nostalgic reminders of childhood, and eventually they became family heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation. Still later, the samplers became collector's items, sought by people attracted to what Mrs. Ring refers to as ``their visual impact as decoration, their comfortable authenticity, and the fact that each is an individual, one-of-a-kind, signed and dated creation.''
The incredible wealth of schoolgirl embroideries is tangible evidence that far more girls received some sort of schooling than has been generally recognized, says Mrs. Ring, who has traced the many fascinating forms of needlework which developed at girls' schools in different regions of the country.
The first exhibition of samplers took place in 1900, at about the same time that newspaper articles about them began to appear and historians began to take note of them. As late as the mid-1940s, prime examples were still selling at auction for prices that ranged from $35 to $130. In the mid-'60s, Mrs. Ring paid $450 each for two good examples and thought the price was exorbitant. Today, many of the same samplers bring prices, at auction, in the $20,000 range, and a few have even soared to $40,000.
That does not mean that people of modest means can no longer collect, says Mrs. Ring. Serious collectors, she explains, are chiefly interested only in the top 10 percent of what is available. So it is still possible to find interesting pieces for $1,000 or under, and to run across bargains at out-of-the-way places.
Although Mrs. Ring says she was always interested in American antiques, it was a gift from her husband, Gregg, 30 years ago of all back issues of Antiques Magazine that set her on the path to becoming the collector/scholar she is today. She worked her way through the file of magazines during the years she was chauffering seven children to schools and classes. ``By the time I had finished, I knew who was who in the antiques field, and why.''
She later became a friend of the eminent Houston collector, Miss Ima Hogg, and served as a docent for many years at her Bayou Bend Collection.
Since the best of American furniture was already out of reach in price, Mrs. Ring decided to collect samplers -- ``something that was so modest that I could have the best of. Also I found that needlework was a subject simply waiting to be explored and written about.''
In 1967 she got togther her first small exhibition of samplers and pictorial needlework and developed a lecture to go along with it. She was immediately in demand as a speaker on needlework and began to travel widely to research her subject and to meet museum curators, dealers, and other collectors.
In 1971, her first carefully researched article on needlework appeared in Antiques magazine. Since then, nine others have followed. She has also lectured at most major antiques forums in the country, as well as at colleges, historical societies, and museums in many cities.
The high point of her career, says Mrs.Ring, was an invitation to be guest curator for a major exhibit of Rhode Island schoolgirl needlework called ``Let Virtue Be a Guide to Thee -- Needlework in the Education of Rhode Island Women, 1730-1830.'' The exhibit, sponsored by the Rhode Island Historical Society, opened in Providence in November 1983 and traveled later to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and to the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it was shown last year.
Mrs. Ring devoted four years to researching the exhibition, and also wrote the 276-page catalog.
The next task she hopes to undertake is the writing of a major book on regional styles of American samplers and pictorial needlework, a definitive reference volume that would be helpful to other collectors. ``I now have so much material that I must somehow get it into book form so it will be useful to others as well,'' she explains.
What has meant the most to Mrs. Ring throughout her in-depth venture into antique needlework?
``Friends. The antiques world is a community of people who live in all places, everywhere, but who stay in touch with each other. I have lived in Houston all of my life, but my specialized interest has taken me out into the world and made me part of a much broader community. I have loved every aspect of this wider experience.''