“My dear Catherine.... your head runs too much upon Bath, but there is a time for everything - a time for balls and plays, and a time for work.” Northanger AbbeyWomen’s Work Women provided a highly valuable economic service for their families with their sewing skills. With plain sewing they provided much needed clothing for their family in an age without sewing machines and large quantities of mass produced clothing. In rural areas away from a wide selection of shops, such as the areas where many of Jane Austen’s characters lived, it was also more practical. While dresses and coats were often made by a dress maker, Regency women of Jane Austen’s class at least made the men’s shirts and cravats, nightdresses for all the family and some children’s clothing. In 1799 Jane Austen is staying at her brother Edward’s house when she comments about her running stitch:
“We are very busy making Edward’s shirts and I am proud to say I am the neatest worker of the Party”.Examples of men’s shirts, cravats and waistcoats from that time show the ability of women to make that small, neat running stitch. These pieces also show their skill in pattern making and cutting. A new shirt or dress was often traced or copied from another, and then adapted for the fashion. Decorative Pieces Charles Bingley and his sister Caroline in Pride and Prejudice start a conversation about an accomplished woman’s decorative creative skills, understood to be ‘fancy work’.
“All young ladies accomplished! My dear Charles, what do you mean? “Yes, all of them I think. They all paint tables, cover screens and net purses...... I am sure I never heard of a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished.”In this area of decorative fancy work, many Regency gentlewomen were highly skilled in painting, drawing, decoupage, embroidery, netting and design. Being able to produce a decent drawing was evidence of education and accomplishment; as was making presents such as a netted purse for a brother, or covering screens to be used by the fire as Elinor Dashwood paints in Sense and Sensibility. Embroidery was a very popular creative skill of the era, it was an easily transportable skill - when visiting friends or family a workbag of embroidery could be taken along. By the Regency era, embroidery designs had moved away from religious symbols to floral designs. Floral designs were often worked in crewel work, woollen thread on a heavier linen for bedding and in tambour using the crochet hook like needle to work a fast colourful chain stitch across the top of the fabric. There were also a wide range of other types of embroidery. Whitework was particularly popular amongst the gentry to work an imitation lace - white work stitches on a fine muslin or cotton could give the appearance of lace, which was far too expensive for most of Jane Austen’s characters to buy. Such whitework pieces were then turned into caps, cuffs or handkerchiefs.
Jennifer Forest is the author of the best selling book, Jane Austen's Sewing Box. Inspired by the arts and crafts in Jane Austen's novels, she joined history and craft together in a new way - using research into these Regency craft skills to create beautiful and useful projects today. The book includes instructions and full color photographs of the following handcrafts: A Letter case, Linen cravat, Linen pillowcases, Workbags, Paper flowers, Knitted and netted purses, Huswife, Carpet work, Muff and Tippet, Pin cushion and thread case, Transparency, Bonnet, Reticule, Knitted rug, and Muslin caps. Enjoyed this article? Browse our Jane Austen Giftshop!
Bingley’s quote in this article is what brought me to this website. I know what he means by covering screens and netting purses, but what is painting tables? Caroline Bingley is rapturous over Miss Darcy’s design for a table. Is this the same thing?
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