Learning to Stitch in Jane Austen’s Time
Sewing was a necessity in Jane Austen’s time and our favourite author was as skilled with a needle as she was with a pen. In this month’s ‘Musings’, expert embroiderer and co-author of Jane Austen Embroidery (along with another of our guest bloggers, Professor Jennie Batchelor) gives us a fascinating insight into how stitching was taught in Georgian England.
Jane Austen was a skilled needleworker, who enjoyed it as much as she did writing, and was proud of her skill.
When we think of the sewing and embroidery work that was done during the 18/early 19C, we marvel sometimes at the amount of sewing done. It’s easy to dismiss this with comments like “well, they had no TV”, but we also need to acknowledge that the quantity of “work”, as it was called at the time, was in many ways a necessity. You couldn’t just pop down to the shops to buy bedlinen or shirts. Everything had to be made in-house or bought from a professional workshop (expensive!). Jane Austen records in her letters spending time sewing shirts for her brother in the Navy – and making a dozen at a time! Sheets would also have to be stitched together and hemmed by the maids or the lady of the house.
This ‘work’ was divided into 2 areas, ‘plain sewing’ and ‘fancy work’, a distinction still useful today. Plain sewing was the hemming, seaming, gathering etc which was the basis of producing everyday items. Fancy work was embroidery.
There was a fairly clear class distinction over who learned what. Working class girls would have neither the money nor the time for fancy embroidery and were taught plain sewing and mending. Much of their clothing would have been second-hand, or cobbled together from cast-offs, so mending was a much-needed skill. A working class girl might learn embroidery in the form of basic cross-stitch alphabets and simple coronet symbols if working as a maid, to mark their masters’ linens. Otherwise the only time a working class girl might learn embroidery was if she was being trained as a lady’s maid, who would be expected to be able to mend her mistress’ embroidered clothes, or to help her with embroideries for the house.
A girl from a middle-class or gentry household, on the other hand, actually had a tougher job. She was still expected to learn plain sewing, to use herself if the family situation required it, or at least to supervise her maids and know when they were doing good work. A ‘lady’ was expected to be more skilled than any of her household, to provide an example of excellence. She was also expected to master fancy embroidery, to embellish clothing for her husband and family, make gifts for friends, and perhaps make cushions, screens and such to decorate the house. Even the daughter of an aristocratic family would be expected to learn these skills, to supervise her household sewing maids, know what she bought from a professional workshop was of good quality, or even to work items herself for amusement or if the family’s circumstances became straitened. Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, was an accomplished needlewoman, as were her daughters.
Where and how did they learn these skills? Most girls learned at home, from their mothers or other female relatives. This does pre-suppose an interest (and a level of teaching ability) on the mother’s side as well! Indeed, much of a girl’s education depended on her parents unless a family was well-off enough to send her to a private school, or she was lucky enough to be educated by her brothers’ tutor.
‘Schools of Industry’ became popular in the 1790s, set up by gentry or aristocratic families for the working families of their areas. They were designed to provide a basic education and potential trade for the poorer families, to help them towards proper work, rather than ‘service’ or factories. The focus for girls was very much on plain sewing skills, including the basic embroidery needed for marking items. Hence the quantities of ‘school’ samplers showing alphabets, numbers and symbols that can be seen in some collections. Mrs Anna Larpent recorded her daily activities from 1790-1832, including considerable time spent on ‘work’: she set up such a school in 1787 with her sister Clara, for 8 girls.
For the more skilled stitchers among the working class, there was the potential to enter an apprenticeship. This would require a fee to the workshop Master, so would be out of reach of the poorest families. Apprenticeships took some five to seven years but would allow a woman to gain a proper job in an embroidery workshop. This would probably mean 12-14 hour days, making embroidered items for the gentry or aristocracy, under considerable time pressure. Some work might be piece-work, done at home; larger pieces would be done in the workshop. An embroiderer would be expected to supply her own needles and scissors. Chosen, more skilled embroiderers might work in the ‘shop’ part of the workshop in public view – which was another way for middle-class or gentry to learn stitches or techniques, by watching the professional workers!
Detail of embroidery on a waistcoat dated c1770, from the author’s own collection. A professionally worked piece.
The distinction between plain and fancy work also affected when the work was done. One comment I often hear when I am demonstrating Georgian embroidery is ‘how could they do such fine work by candlelight?’ In practice, they didn’t.
Fancy work needed to be done in daylight. If you look at paintings of women of the time doing embroidery, they are usually sitting in a window. Professional workers working long hours would sometimes have needed to work by candlelight. They might have been lucky enough to have the candles provided by the workshop master, or they might have had to buy their own. Many professional embroiderers had to retire early, because of the damage they did to their sight working in bad light.
Evenings were for plain sewing, making sheets, shirts, etc, or for relatively straightforward embroidery such as needlepoint work or cross stitch. Mrs Larpent had to spend more of her time stitching ‘useful work’ after her family’s income was reduced in 1794. A lady who could take this on could make considerable savings in the household budget by making items herself rather than having to employ a maid or housekeeper to do the work. Mending would also save having to ‘buy new’.
Learning these skills was expected of any woman or girl during this period, although not everyone enjoyed it or was skilled. Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) hated sewing and made very few bones about that dislike! Jane Austen was a skilled needleworker, who enjoyed it as much as she did writing, and was proud of her skill. Given that she worked on a patchwork quilt which still survives with her mother and her sister Cassandra, it is clear that her mother (also called Cassandra) was a keen stitcher too, and taught both Jane and Cassandra well.
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.