Chawton House’s Emma at 200 exhibition, which ran from 21st March to 25th September of this year, was accompanied by a display of extraordinary embroidery. Dr Jennie Batchelor, who runs the ongoing research project on The Lady’s Magazine at the University of Kent, found a rare set of embroidery patterns still enclosed in one of the original magazines. They were usually removed by their original readers. These were posted online and resulted in enthusiastic responses and practical adaptations by embroiderers both in Britain and abroad. Such was the interest in this traditional ladies’ accomplishment, largely triggered by the chance to use authentic patterns which Jane Austen’s contemporaries would have seen, that this exhibition received stunning contributions and sparked new curiosity about the art form. The variety of interpretations of the simple designs show imaginative uses of different textiles, threads and finishes, and unanticipated modifications into such things as eighteenth-century shoes, shawls, a plantpot holder and perhaps controversial, machine-embroidered items. Each piece represents hours of careful work and a celebration of female skills which have been largely sidelined. I suspect embroidery is not something embraced by most teenage girls now. A close look reveals that contributors have not simply reproduced eighteenth-century work, but have made the patterns their own, reimagined them in their own time and with their own individual focus. Some have found antique seed pearls, others have used readily available craft materials. The patterns themselves were of course commercially produced for a burgeoning market, and there are still thriving niche publications to serve the same purpose. Current work on material culture is addressing the applied arts and female domestic sphere with more scrutiny. It is therefore a good moment to display the results of a practical project such as this. It does reflect the increasingly eclectic range of activities on offer at Chawton House, which seems able to comfortably combine a scholarly programme of talks and conferences with workshops on book-making and Strawberry Picnics.
The Embroidery Class was planned to accompany the exhibition, and took place in sessions of one hour. They were taught by Charlotte Bailey, a talented needlewoman who states on her website that she specialises in ‘the intricate, the fiddly, the figurative and the fantastic.’ She has worked in the fashion industry and was part of the team which produced the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress. She pitched the class at near beginners and provided a handout demonstrating each of the stitches to be used, along with a handkerchief on which the design was ready to follow. I am sure that most of the participants had been skilled needlewomen in some capacity, but perhaps had not touched a needle for years and relished the opportunity to share an afternoon with other enthusiasts in one of Chawton’s beautiful flower-filled wainscotted rooms. Charlotte patiently demonstrated each stage, checked our work and advised us how to improve. It certainly looked easier at first than it eventually proved to produce a neat result, and left us with more respect for Jane Austen’s peers than we might have had before.
Bending quietly over our work, we were sharing the posture of women sewing which featured in so many genre paintings from the seventeenth century onwards, feeling women’s history in a visceral way. The popularity of the classes must prove that there is a desire to learn the traditional expertise once an assumed part of female experience, albeit one which cannot be nurtured simply within a school curriculum. Eighteenth-century women may have been denied access to many of the art classes on offer to young men, but their skills in embroidery were given royal encouragement by Queen Charlotte, who supported Mrs. Pawsey’s school for ‘embroidering females’. The Queen’s patronage of outstanding women artists brought their work into the public sphere, and many varieties of needlework appear in the lists of contributions to exhibitions at the time.
I think none of the class at Chawton would have won any prizes. One hour passes very quickly and no one managed to complete the modest design in front of us. In a sense, this was not the important part of the exercise. The dexterity and concentration needed for the task were the lessons we could share with our eighteenth-century sisters, along with a respect for the many hours they spent often in unsatisfactory light, labouring on the complex work taken for granted by their contemporaries. Mary Delany’s breathtaking embroidery on her court dress of 1740, which survives in fragments in different collections, can only be contemplated with awe and humility. We could feel our way through a small part of the process which is triumphant in the embroidery exhibition, itself only a reminder of what women achieved. It is a pity that no samples appear to have been located to show us how the patterns were originally used. Most were intended for items of clothing, for men and women. Probably those dissolute brothers who sported the cravats and waistcoats embellished by their sisters were not concerned about their survival. So little practical creative work by ordinary women survives as testimony to those long hours and dexterous fingers.
Charlotte had certainly entered into the spirit that always lingers where Austen’s feet have trodden, by dressing in a very becoming Regency gown, emphasising the nature of this particular class. It had a direct line back to Austen’s contemporaries, their pastimes and indeed the limitations traditionally set upon their occupations. Music has often featured at Chawton events – singing and dancing – but not as much drawing, as far as I know. There is certainly walking, riding and ‘botanising’ and a thriving reading group. So some female ‘accomplishments’ are addressed in different ways in events featured throughout the year. Thomas Broadhurst (Advice to Young Ladies on the Improvement of the Mind, and the Conduct of Life, 1808) and the rest of the army of writers alarmed by the shallowness of female ‘accomplishments’ would be perhaps a little tight-lipped about a new appraisal of their value. But the range of activities which find an appropriate home at Chawton complement the serious scholarship on women writers on which its work hinges.
This embroidery class would probably not compare well with a course organised on a termly basis in an adult education centre, which would systematically teach the skills necessary for competent results. The skills we left with were likely to be only a negligible improvement on those we brought along. This was a small snapshot, a ‘taster’ and clearly linked to the Lady’s Magazine project. Jennie Batchelor had arranged to film the class, presumably as part of the project’s publicity and social media presence. Everyone seemed satisfied however as we enjoyed the tea and cake afterwards. The context was everything, and the palpable enthusiasm for sharing a sunny afternoon at Chawton with others who are likewise caught up in the spell of the place was easy to sense.
The embroidery class was held at Chawton House, Hampshire on the 24th July 2016. A video clip about the workshop and the Lady’s Magazine project can be viewed on Youtube.