A stitch of Austenian inspiration

Woman running material through a sewing machine

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all of us in different ways, but with the short and often dark days of winter in mind, I determined this was the year when I was going to re-acquaint myself with a hobby I gave up years ago – sewing. Nothing too ambitious, you understand, but I am determined to make something wearable.

When I was possessed of the enthusiasm and confidence of youth (many years ago), I remember borrowing my mother’s old hand sewing machine, and embarking on shift dresses and strappy tops (in case you haven’t already realised this was the ‘70’s, the decade before big hair and ra-ra skirts). I actually making a credible job of the items I tackled, but honestly compels me to admit they were pretty basic. Where did that confidence go? When did my ability to grab some material and just plunge straight in fall by the wayside? Even my mother’s spare curtains weren’t safe from my sewing zeal. My excuse is that my modern machine, bought in a recent fit of enthusiasm and stubborn determination to master ‘the beast’, looks so much more complicated than the old hand cranked one.

I just happened to be re-reading some of Jane Austen’s letters, and it set me to wondering what Jane would have thought of all the varieties of material available to us today at the click of a button online, delivered to our door even if we can’t visit the local market and spend ages browsing around the material stalls (if we’re lucky enough to still have a local market in normal times). Necessary sewing was so much part of a woman’s life then.

Spoilt for choice, I gaze at the varieties of patterns and textures, polyester, cotton, chiffon, silk and wool, and end up buying nothing. Jane Austen, however, seems to have spent quite a lot of her time assessing the pros and cons of different materials when there was no internet to help her and it had to be done the hard way, foot slogging around shops. She writes to Cassandra in June 1799 about gauze available at 4 shillings a yard, coloured muslins at 3 shillings and sixpence a yard in April 1811(although she warns Cassandra that they spots are red, and nothing like the green that had been specified) and she reports on the success of the trimmings she has put on her gauze gown in March 1814.

At the moment, I remind myself of Harriet Smith and her endless dithering in Emma, struggling to make up her mind whether she wants her dress material and ribbon sent to her at school or at the Woodhouse residence. I remind myself that I need to buy something and just get started.

Oh well, there’s always tomorrow…

Margaret Mills is a part-time adult education lecturer. She gives talks on a range of subjects, including, of course, Jane Austen. If you, like Margaret, have been inspired by Jane Austen, we'd love to hear from you. Click here to read the guidance on how to submit your own blog to the Jane Austen Centre blog.

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