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Archive for the ‘Sewing’ Category

Embroidered bells on Princess Charlotte's court gown.

Several years ago I featured Princess Charlotte’s bellflower court dress, a sumptuous creation that must have taken a boatload of seamstresses untold hours of work to complete. I had the privilege of viewing this fragile dress when it was on exhibit at the Museum of London, and I often wondered how the bell flowers (which were worked with silver thread and tiny glass beads) were made.

The court dress, 1814. Image @Museum of London

Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Needlework (1870) provides a glimpse. Although the illustrations are rough compared to the royal example, one begins to understand how time consuming this needlework was for the women who labored long hours in poor lighting conditions.  The book describes the process for bluebells, which were embroidered in a raised satin stitch. The pieces were worked separately, then half of the embroidered piece was sewn onto an outlined embroidered shape on the fine fabric. This shape represented the inner part of the flower.

Bluebell embroidered work.

The first two illustrations from Beeton’s book show 1) the complete bluebell and 2) the inner part of the flower with the overcast outline.

The flat outer part of the bluebell. This piece is fastened onto the outline.

The second illustration shows the raised outer part as a flat piece. This second embroidered piece was fastened in a three dimensional way onto the overcast outline. Then the excess material was carefully cut away without damaging the underlying fabric. (This job must have been tougher and more delicate with Princess Charlotte’s gauzy net dress.)

I recall clearly seeing that some of the bellflowers had been torn away or were missing – and wondered if someone had stepped on Princess Charlotte’s train, or if she had snagged the hem on something.

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Gentle readers, Collette from the Serendipity franchise has graciously allowed me to reprint her review of Jane Austen’s Sewing box. I wrote “franchise” because her online presence includes: Serendipity Vintage, Serendipity Handmade, Vintage Life Network, Serendipity Vintage Facebook, and SerendipityVintage on Twitter.

I also now have a copy of the lovely Jane Austen’s Sewing Box: Craft Projects and Stories from Jane Austen’s Novels. You may have seen a review or two on other craft blogs. As I am a Austen aficionado I could not pass it up:

It is a beautiful book, filled with gorgeous color fashion plates of the time that are worth a look. I read it cover-to-cover and enjoyed every moment. However, I would recommend purchasing it only if you enjoy historical Regency costume and /or are a die-hard Regency or Jane Austen fan.

As for the crafts themselves, some are probably of more interest to the costume enthusiast (like the cravat, the bonnet, or the tippet). There is only one photo of each project and even one more photograph of each project would have enhanced this book. Yet one whole page might be devoted to one short quote from one of Austen’s novels, or to a lovely painting from the time period:

The actual instructions for each project were also quite succinct and limited to only one page. If you’ve ever read any of the antique craft books from the early-to-mid 19th century you know that project instructions were usually all text and that diagrams were sparse. The actual descriptions of the the projects were very reminiscent of the actual books of the time. Still, I would like to make this case for embroidery thread:


In the time of the Regency you would store your
embroidery thread on a bone or wood thread winder

Austen mentioned each craft project in one of her novels, and it is fascinating to read the excerpts from the novels and then read Forest’s commentary about the craft as it was practiced at the time. If you are interested in historical craft and want to know more about the role of crafts in the lives of Regency women you will love the historical detail in this book. It’s definitely an informative and charming read!

Photographs from Jane Austen’s Sewing Box, Murdoch Books, or in the public domain. Review reprinted with permission.

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Domestic Happiness, after George Morland

We have come to associate the Regency period with fine white, high-waisted muslin dresses that were beautifully detailed and embroidered. Until quite recently in human history, a lady did not roam far from her sewing basket. She would mend, sew, and embroider whenever she had spare time. (Even the finest lady in the land could be found plying her needles.) During the day she would sit near a well lit window or even outdoors, and during the long evening hours she would sit by the fireside in a room with other family members, sharing the light from expensive candles (sometimes a single one). For entertainment, one of the men would read aloud from a book, or other family members would play musical instruments. Jane Austen was well known for her sewing skills and examples of her needlework are shown in the Jane Austen Museum in Chawton.

Diamond shaped pattern with a flower in the center

White work is a broad term, one that may be said to encompass any white-on-white needlework, that is, needlework that uses a white yarn or thread on a white ground to create a pattern. Various techniques are employed to make these patterns stand out in high relief against their monochrome background, with the result that many white work pieces have an intensely sculptural quality

All over the country, women carried their needlework with them on visits, and traded patterns among friends.

These techniques include embroidery, drawn work, pulled-fabric work, stump work, stuffed work, cording, quilting, candlewicking, and, later, weaving, both by draw loom and machine. – From Lap to Loom: The transition of Marseilles white work from hand to machine

Detail of cap with twigs and flowers on a ladder motif

Whitework embroidery was frequently used on muslin dresses, fine lawn caps, handerkerchiefs, tablecloths, and bed linens. Patterns were featured in Ladies Periodicals, showing many different motifs, some fancier than others.

1815 La Belle Assemblee Wheat sheaf design

The finest whitework was done on cambric and fine muslin, or netting. This was called French embroidery, or French Hand Sewing. The most delicate threads and techniques were utilized to make gorgeous, lacy handkerchiefs, veils, bonnets, cuffs, collars and baby clothes, as well as gifts to very special friends…

1823 Ackermann embroidery pattern

Christening gowns and robes of the time were very heavily embroidered and were most treasured by their owners. Lots of different patterns and stitches were used, with lots of feather stitching all over, leading to flowers made of satin stitch, eyelets, and buttonhole stitches so tiny as to be difficult to see, and almost all with matching bonnets and slips or petticoats. French knots decorated edges.

1825 Two simple muslin edging patterns

Wedding gowns, too, were embroidered with these techniques, and some of the grooms’ clothes, too, were embroidered to match! – Whitework embroidery

Embroidered collar with lace

More on the topic:

Detail of the hem of a muslin gown. Vintage Textiles.

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No needlework, either of ancient or modern times, (says Mr. Lambert,) has ever surpassed the productions of Miss Linwood. So early as 1785, these pictures had acquired such celebrity as to attract the attention of the Royal Family, to whom they were shewn at Windsor Castle. - Book of Days

Mary Linwood by Hoppner, 1800

Mary Linwood by Hoppner, 1800. Image @Victoria & Albert Museum

Mary Linwood, Partridges after the painting by Moses Haughton, 1798

Mary Linwood, Partridges after the painting by Moses Haughton, 1798

Mary Linwood was an artist who used needlework as her material.  Born in Birmingham in 1755, Mary made her first embroidered picture when she was thirteen years old. She was mistress of a private boarding school, which her mother started, but her lasting claim to fame lay in her needlework art. For nearly seventy-five years Mary imitated popular paintings in worsted embroidery. An enterprising woman, she opened an exhibition in the Hanover Square Rooms in 1798,  which afterward traveled to Leicester Square, Edinburgh and Dublin. Four years before her death in 1845,  her works were still exhibited in London.  She embroidered her last piece when seventy-eight, although she lived to be 90 and worked as a school mistress until a year before her death.  In 1844, during her annual visit to her Exhibition in London, she caught the flu and died.

Mary worked with stitches of different lengths on a fabric made especially for her in Leicester. She had coarse linen tammy cloth prepared for her as well. Her long and short stitches looked like brush strokes, with silk for highlights, and many amateurs copiesd her on a smaller scale. A good example of her work is the almost 2 ft square portrait of Napoleon in the South Kensington Museum.

Needlework image of Napoleon

Needlework image of Napoleon

Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte embroidered with coloured worsteds in small short and long stitches By Miss Mary Linwood In gilt frame glazed English Late 18th or early 19 th centy H 2 ft 7 in W 2 ft 2 in Bequeathed by the late Miss Ellen Markland 1438 1874 This is a remarkable specimen of embroidery involving great labour to imitate a painting - A Descriptive Catalogue of the collections of tapestry and embroidery in the South Kensington Museum, Alan Cole, 1888, p.369

Miss Linwood’s worked pictures, exhibited in Leicester square, were for many years reckoned among the sights of London, and although their pretensions to artistic merit are regarded contemptuously by the present generation, they were in one sense undoubtedly wonderful productions. The exhibition contained copies after such masters as Carlo Dolci, Guido, Ruysdael, Opie, Morland, Gainsborough, Reynolds; a list that proves how great was the scope Miss Linwood’s ambition, and how catholic  her taste. The whole collection was dispersed at Christie’s room after Miss Linwood’s death in 1845, when the pieces knocked down for sums far below those at which they had been valued a few years previously…Miss Linwood’s pictures, worked with untwisted soft crewel specially dyed in graduated shades on a ground of twilled linen, are really meritorious, nevertheless one cannot regret that their day, equally with that of the Berlin wool Landseers, is overpast and that we have at last learnt the limitations as well as the possibilities of the embroiderer’s delightful craft. – The Collector

Exhibition, Book of Days

Exhibition, Image @Book of Days

Although Mary Linwood’s needlework exhibits were popular during her lifetime, not everyone was enamored with her work. In 1919, Emily Leigh Lowes wrote these rather hateful statements about Mary in her book, Chats on Old Needlework (Embroidery),

The originator and moving spirit of this bad period was Miss Linwood, who conceived the idea of copying oil paintings in woolwork. She died in 1845. Would that she had never been born! When we think of the many years which English women have spent over those wickedly hideous Berlin-wool pictures, working their bad drawing and vilely crude colours into those awful canvases, and imagining that they were earning undying fame as notable women for all the succeeding ages, death was too good for Miss Linwood. The usual boiling oil would have been a fitter end! Miss Linwood made a great furore at the time of her invention, and held an exhibition in the rooms now occupied by Messrs. Puttick & Simpson, Leicester Square. Can we not imagine the shade of the great Sir Joshua Reynolds, whose home and studio these rooms had been, revisiting the glimpses of the moon, and while wandering up and down that famous old staircase forsaking his home for ever after one horrified glance at Miss Linwood’s invention?

Not only Miss Linwood, but Mrs. Delany and Miss Knowles made themselves famous for Berlin-wool pictures. The kindest thing to say is that the specimens which are supposed to have been worked by their own hands are considerably better than those of the half-dozen generations of their followers. During the middle and succeeding twenty years of the nineteenth century the notable housewife of every class amused herself, at the expense of her mind, by working cross-stitch pictures with crudely coloured wools (royal blue and rose-pink, magenta, emerald-green, and deep crimson were supposed to represent the actual colours of Nature), on very coarse canvas.

More on the topic:

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young-girl-of-spirit-constance-hillIn December 1859, Florence Nightingale wrote this letter of recommendation to Parthenope Verney:

My dear [Parthenope Verney]

It occurred to me after writing yesterday if you are going to set up a needlewoman under the housekeeper, Mary Jenkins, Bathwoman, Dr. W. Johnson’s, Great Malvern, has a niece, living at Oxford, a first-rate needlewoman, eldest girl of a very large family, who wants or wanted a place. If she is at all like my good old friend, her aunt, she would be a very valuable servant. Perhaps her needlework would be almost too good for your place. I believe she is a qualified “young lady’s maid,” though when I heard of her, she had never been “out,” i.e., in service. Perhaps she has a place. I think it answers very well in a large house to have as much as possible done at home, as little as possible “put out.”

This domestic job as needlewoman – mending, embroidering, making clothes – sounds benign compared to the custom of the Regency and Victorian eras to overwork seamstresses. While plying the needle was a common domestic activity (Jane Austen was known to possess a particular talent in this direction), working class seamstresses were appallingly overworked and underpaid, especially during the heyday of the Industrial Revolution. Many women toiled for long hours in poor lighting conditions, with some going blind from their employment. An apprentice seamstress in a milliner’s shop worked under slightly better conditions, but during the Season when demand for new and fashionable dresses was high, these women would also be pressed to work into the wee hours of the night to complete an order.

The above illustration of Jane Austen sewing comes from Jane Austen: Her Homes and Her Friends by Constance Hill. In Chapter XX, Constance makes the following observation about Jane Austen’s skill as a needlewoman:

Her needlework was exquisite. We have seen a muslin scarf embroidered by her in satin-stitch, and have held in our hands a tiny housewife of fairy-like proportions, which Jane worked at the age of sixteen as a gift for a friend. It consists of a narrow strip of flowered silk, embroidered at the back, which measures four inches by one and a quarter, and is furnished with minikin needles and fine thread. At one end there is a tiny pocket, containing a slip of paper upon which are some verses in diminutive handwriting with the date “Jany. 1792.” The little housewife, when rolled up, is tied with narrow ribbon. “Having been never used and carefully preserved, it is as fresh and bright as when it was first made.

For more on this topic, click on my other post The Life of a Seamstress.

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Illustration from Modes et Manieres Du Jour, 1798 – 1808

I have changed my mind, & changed the trimmings on my Cap this morning, they are now much as you suggested, – I felt as if I should not prosper if I strayed from your directions, & I think it makes me look more like Lady Conyngham now than it did before, which is all that one lives for now. Jane Austen to Cassandra, December 18-19, 1798

Women during the Regency period wore headdresses outdoors as a matter of course. When a woman married, or if she was a spinster in her late twenties, she would also take to wearing a cap indoors. This image from Wikipedia shows Mme. Seriziat wearing a bergere, or shepherdess-style straw bonnet over a cap, as was the custom back then. When her child was a baby, he might have worn a simple bonnet, as infants still do today.

Aside from sheltering delicate skin from the sun or hair from the elements, or protecting one’s head in drafty rooms, headdresses took on many other functions. They denoted class and economic status, as well as fashion sense and one’s marital state. Hats were also worn as a sign of respect, inside a church, for instance, and this custom remained widely popular until well into the 20th-century.

Lace caps, mob caps, or draped caps, were made of lace, white linen or delicate muslin, and trimmed with ribbon. They could be ruffled, embroidered, or plain, depending on who wore them and their status. A housekeeper, for example, would wear a more elaborate cap than a scullery maid, whose mob cap was simple by comparison. In Pride and Prejudice 1995, Mrs. Bennet wore such frilly caps with so many ruffles and trimmings that they complimented her image as a silly woman. One can imagine how much fancier her caps were than her maid’s!

Trimming and redecorating old bonnets provided a topic of conversation for women of all ages and social strata. In her novels and letters, Jane Austen frequently mentioned trimming new hats and making over old bonnets as a female activity. According to Penelope Byrde in A Frivolous Distinction, it was quite the fad during the last decade of the 18th century to adorn hats and bonnets with artificial fruits and flowers. As Jane Austen wrote Cassandra in June, 1799 (tongue in cheek we suspect):

Flowers are very much worn, & Fruit is still more the thing – Eliz: has a bunch of Strawberries, & I have seen Grapes, Cherries, Plumbs & Apricots – There are likewise Almonds& raisins, french plums & Tamarinds at the Grocers, but I have never seen any of them in hats.

In addition to professional milliners and modistes, there was quite a large cottage industry for making caps, hats, and turbans from home, which provided a meager salary for women who needed the income. The materials used in making headdresses were as varied as their styles: straw (chip or strip), beaver, velvet, silk, crape, satin, muslin or cloth (Byrde, p 6). Trims included ribbons, the above mentioned artificial fruits and flowers, veils, net, lace, or feathers, and even beads, pins, and brooches.

For a more detailed explanation of the headdresses worn during this era and to view additional illustrations, please click on the following links.

  • Hats and Bonnets, Victoriana: Scroll to the bottom of this page to see illustrations from 1811 and 1812.
  • Fileblogs, Regency Caps, Linore Rose Burkhart: Linore describes the various hat styles in this link, along with materials and trims.

For people interested in ordering their own Regency caps, or in trying their hand at making a bonnet, the following links will lead you to patterns, suppliers, and resources:

  • Louise MacDonald Millinery (link suggested by Laurel Ann, see above image). Louise created the caps for Pride & Prejudice 1995, and describes making them for the movie.

Byrde, Penelope, A Frivolous Distinction: Fashion and Needlework in the works of Jane Austen, Bath City Council, 1979.

Four Hundred Years of Fashion, Victoria and Albert Museum, edited by Natalie Rothstein, V&A Publications, 1984.

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March 15th – The seamstress came this morning to begin my wardrobe. We were with her for more than two hours and Mama ordered so many new gowns as that I am sure I shall never wear the half of them, but she insists that I must be properly dressed. – From The Journal of a Regency Lady 5

The above quote, though coming from a contemporary author, might well have been written during the regency era. Women’s clothes were made at home during this period by the ladies themselves, their servants, or a professional seamstress. A dressmaker (or mantua maker) would charge about 2 pounds per garment and come to the house for fittings, where she might be served tea. A successful mantua maker who had set up shop in the fashionable part of Town would also provide a pleasant environment in which a lady could relax, serving tea and refreshments to prolong the shopping experience.

In her letters, Jane Austen mentioned a Miss Burton, who made pelisses for her and Cassandra in 1811. The cost of cloth and labor were reasonable, she wrote, but the buttons seemed expensive. Fabrics, increasingly mass produced, became more affordable during the Industrial Revolution, and demand for clothes grew among the newly wealthy middle class women. Young girls who sought work in the cities became seamstresses in homes and sweat shops. A little over twenty years after Jane’s death, the poor working conditions described below were common for seamstresses.

1) EVIDENCE TAKEN BY Children’s Employment Commission, February 1841

Miss — has been for several years in the dress-making business…The common hours of business are from 8 a.m. til 11 P.M in the winters; in the summer from 6 or half-past 6 A.M. til 12 at night. During the fashionable season, that is from April til the latter end of July, it frequently happens that the ordinary hours are greatly exceeded; if there is a drawing-room or grand fete, or mourning to be made, it often happens that the work goes on for 20 hours out of the 24, occasionally all night….The general result of the long hours and sedentary occupation is to impair seriously and very frequently to destroy the health of the young women. The digestion especially suffers, and also the lungs: pain to the side is very common, and the hands and feet die away from want of circulation and exercise, “never seeing the outside of the door from Sunday to Sunday.” [One cause] is the short time which is allowed by ladies to have their dresses made. Miss is sure that there are some thousands of young women employed in the business in London and in the country. If one vacancy were to occur now there would be 20 applicants for it. The wages generally are very low…Thinks that no men could endure the work enforced from the dress-makers.

[Source: Hellerstein, Hume & Offen, Victorian Women: A Documentary Accounts of Women’s Lives in Nineteenth-Century England, France and the United States, Stanford University Press.]

For other sources on this topic, click on the links below.

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