Strictly Jane Austen

Embroidery in Jane Austen’s Time

Embroidery was the height of fashion in Jane Austen’s time and every lady was expected to learn to do ‘fancy work’. In this month’s ‘Musings’, Alison Larkin, co-author of Jane Austen Embroidery (along with another of our guest bloggers, Professor Jennie Batchelor) and an expert embroiderer herself, gives us a fascinating insight into the art of embroidery in Georgian England.

One of the best periods of English embroidery was the 18th/19th century. The emphasis at this time was on embroidered clothing, especially ‘dress’ items for special occasions. The more embroidery a person of the gentry or aristocracy had on their clothing, the better, particularly during the mid-Georgian period. The fashion did fall off a little in the early 19th century, but court costume was still expected to be elaborately decorated. These embroidered items could be purchased from a professional workshop, but for the less well-off, it might well have been done by the lady of the house. Every lady at the time was expected to learn to sew and do ‘fancy work’: remember that everything had to be made in-house or bought (expensive!), even shirts and bedlinens.

Patterns for embroidery had been available since the 16th century, either in published Pattern Books, or purchased from a Pattern Drawer or Haberdasher. However, getting patterns became a lot easier from 1770, with the publication of The Lady’s Magazine, or Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex. This was a monthly periodical containing a wide variety of articles, stories, reviews, poetry, music – and a monthly embroidery pattern! This considerably annoyed the pattern drawers, as the whole monthly issue was half the price of a pattern from a haberdasher, something the publisher, George Robinson, made much of in his editorial comments!

A pattern for a workbag, published in The Lady’s Magazine in June 1775: Author’s own collection.

These patterns would have been kept by the reader, so they could be used, copied, or shared around all their friends. The periodicals were also available from the Circulating Libraries, and one cannot help but wonder how many patterns were still in the copies when they were returned to the Library!

Such patterns would be kept in the lady’s workbag, or in a box. Another habit also developed in the early 19th century, that of the personal pattern book. Ladies who were keen embroiderers would obtain a plain notebook, perhaps what we might see as about A4 size, and use it as a record of patterns they had seen, remembered, or borrowed from friends. Patterns were traced or copied, sometimes with notes about who it had come from or what colours might be suitable. Some of these pattern books survive in various archives, and digital images can be found online.

The more embroidery a person of the gentry or aristocracy had on their clothing, the better, particularly during the mid-Georgian period.

As far as the materials for embroidery are concerned, the main difference from today is the absence of synthetic materials. Everything was linen, wool, silk, or cotton. Most everyday clothing was linen, especially for undergarments. Outerwear might be linen or wool for most families, or silk for ‘dress’ occasions if you could afford it. Cotton was also coming in as a fabric, but it was fairly expensive at first. However, printed and coloured cottons became less expensive as the 19th century progressed.

Embroidery was done with silk, wool, or linen thread. Cotton thread was also used on white cotton muslin fabric to make whitework accessories such as neck-handkerchiefs. Silk fabric was always embroidered with silk thread.

The stitches used were mostly the same ones we use today – satin stitch, stem stitch, French knots, chain stitch, etc. One technique used quite often then, but which has fallen out of favour today, was tambouring. This involves stitching with a hook, rather like a very fine crochet hook. A loop of thread is pulled through the fabric, then the hook moved on and another loop pulled through the first. The effect is like a very fine chain stitch, and once mastered it is much faster that ordinary chain stitch, which made it rather popular!

Detail of work on a replica waistcoat, original dated c1777-8: The outer edge is composed of three lines of tambouring, two in silver thread and the central one in green silk. The metallic scrolling is also tamboured. Author’s own work.

There is a considerable amount of mid-to-late Georgian embroidery on costume in museum collections, some of which is very beautiful. It is fascinating to study, especially for enthusiasts like me! However, we do need to remember a couple of things. Firstly there is the ‘problem’ of survivor bias. The only items you find in collections are the ones that have been saved, for whatever reason. Less decorative or more unusually sized items were often rejected by curators or collectors. Don’t blame them for this: if one has a limited budget, who wouldn’t prefer to take the more beautiful of the items on offer?

Items which were more ordinary or lower class would probably never make it to the ‘museum’ point at all. They would have been re-used, turned, passed on, cutdown for the children, and eventually made into rags. It is a rare middle-class item which reaches a museum collection, but there are some. One I found in the Leeds Museum collection illustrates beautifully the other main problem we have in examining items which are after all, some 200 or more years old: fading. It is a silk waistcoat with silk embroidery, which was probably a ‘best’ garment made by the owner’s wife or daughter (Leeds 008.166/c.1760) On the face of it, it is embroidered with green and beige silk thread, in an interesting design featuring clover leaves and some trellis stitch, with some silver thread. It is probably lower middling class level. The interesting bit came when I found a slit in the back which showed me the reverse of the embroidery and the true colours. Bright salmon pink, not beige at all! Combined with the green and silver thread it would have made a fine show amongst his friends and family.

Detail of waistcoat 008.166/c.1760 from Leeds Museum Collection: Authors own photograph.

Detail from the back of the same waistcoat, showing the unfaded colours: Author’s own photograph

A retired teacher, Alison Larkin lectures and conducts workshops on historic embroidery. She is particularly interested in work on domestic articles, dress, and costume from the Georgian period. Over the past few years, Alison has been working with the Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby to create replicas of the embroideries of James Cook’s wife Elizabeth, who was a skilled embroiderer (The Cook Embroideries Project).  She is also co-author of Jane Austen Embroidery (2020) with Professor Jennie Batchelor.