Shoe Conversations; or, what the Lady’s Magazine Stitch Off taught me about eighteenth-century footwear, embroidery, and community.

I study and write about eighteenth-century literature, and one of my areas of interest is representations of footwear and movement in fiction of the period. I have spent hours poring over artefacts from the era, so you can just imagine my excitement when Jennie Batchelor and the Lady’s Magazine project made these shoe embroidery patterns available, which appeared in a 1775 edition of the magazine now belonging to Penny Gore. I had to try my hand at them.

But what did I learn? What special insights did I gain into the objects I spent so much time thinking and reading about? Well, I learned that I had to try it out for myself, which tells me something about the need to physically and mentally place myself in another’s shoes in order to really understand material culture and its relationship to literature. What the Stitch Off patterns meant for me, then, was that I now had the chance to do more than just wish: I could also experience what it felt like to embroider an upper.

1And what did it feel like? The thing is, it didn’t feel that foreign. It actually felt pretty familiar and when it didn’t, there was a whole community I could turn to for help and encouragement in the form of the Stitch Off participants (including Jenny DiPlacidi’s post). Choosing my silks and colour schemes turned out to be a lesson in local needlepoint knowledge and resources, as shop employees helped me choose materials and became invested in the project. And I think that the sense of community and identity that it created for me and that the Stitch Off itself has brought to the surface also perhaps existed in different ways in the eighteenth century, but this is a trickier question to ponder.

Of course, the way I’d like to ponder it is with the assistance of the fiction I couldn’t help thinking of as I was choosing the materials and stitching the patterns. In Northanger Abbey (1818) Henry Tilney famously claims, ‘muslin always turns to some account or other . . . [it] can never be said to be wasted’, [1] and I thought of Tilney’s words when I realized how little of the silk material I’d need to create the two shoe uppers, as well as when the clerks at the fabric store told me that the silks I purchased were remainders from someone’s wedding clothes. I also realized just how easy it would have been to create silk uppers to match one’s gown; I didn’t buy very much silk, and yet I have so much left that perhaps I will make fellows for each of my uppers so that they don’t exist in such solitude.


© Alicia Kerfoot

Embroidering the uppers also made me think about the relationship between community and solitude. In Frances Burney’s The Wanderer (1814) the heroine (known as Ellis early in the novel) manages to find protection in Mrs. Maple’s household because her needlework is so valuable. However, when Mrs. Maple wants to bar Ellis from the rest of the community and considers casting her out of the house, the housekeeper protests because ‘some fine work, which the young woman had just begun, would not look of a piece if finished by another hand’. [2] This use of Ellis’s needlework first to make her part of Mrs. Maple’s household, and then to prevent her from becoming friendly with neighbours shows how needlework can be both community-building and a solitary activity used to control women. [3] I also like how it points out that one’s handiwork is like a signature, with individual styles and choices that cannot be replicated by another. If I do decide to make matching uppers for the ones I’ve already stitched then they will not be exact pairs either, as my stitches will not match my earlier ones.


© Alicia Kerfoot

Indeed, one of the reasons I became so engaged with the project is because the act of choosing what sorts of stitches to use and where (and being either pleased with or distressed by the results) was so engrossing and addictive. I can sort of see why, in Richardson’s novel, Pamela doesn’t want to leave off stitching Mr. B’s waistcoat, writing to her parents: ‘I never did a prettier Piece of Work; and I am up early and late to get it finish’d’. [4] I, too, felt a sense of ownership and personal connection to my work and stayed ‘up early and late to get it finish’d’.

Another proud and talented needle-woman appears in the 1754 it-narrative, The History and Adventures of a Lady’s Slippers and Shoes (written by themselves, as it-narratives were told from the perspective of the objects). The shoes describe the woman who embroidered them:

The whole town did not afford a neater work-woman, nor a prettier girl, than she, whose delicate hand, performed the needlework of me, —especially she had not her equal for cross-stitch—and she made her boasts with the lasses of her acquaintance, that she had never done any thing neater, and with so much expedition. I am sure, says she, they cost me many a prick’d finger, and broken needle. [5]

 I can relate to this! I did prick my finger a few times while I was stitching, and although the results are not exactly neat, I still have a certain amount of pride in my work and personal investment in it, not unlike the unnamed work-woman.

I also noticed that stitching is an activity that becomes associated with the physical context that one is working in; whether having a conversation, watching the television or sitting in a quiet room, the physical space becomes tied in one’s memory to the physical object. The shoes in the History and Adventures also take in the activities and conversations that occur while the girl does her needlework: ‘Whilst she was at work upon us, her tongue moved as nimbly as her fingers, with hymns, and love-songs, stories, jests, and all the effusions of female prattling’. (38)

How wonderful to think about all of the conversations that have happened over the embroidered shoes that museums and archives currently hold! It adds a significant cultural layer to the object and makes me think of the way, as Jennie Batchelor argues, the Lady’s Magazine encourages conversation and complex dialogue, especially about fashion. The young woman in History and Adventures similarly reproduces multiple and often clashing verbal texts while creating her material one.

The production of footwear in the eighteenth century similarly required different artisans to contribute parts to a completed project that was then shaped and individualised by the consumer. [6] In History and Adventures the ‘neat girl’ passes her work on to a shoemaker, who feels that he must match the standards of the embroidery, as the shoes put it: ‘that my other parts might be answerable’. Shoe-making required a communion between parts, and I do feel a little strange that my uppers will not be used to vamp any shoes; however, the fact that they are at Chawton House for the ‘Emma at 200’ exhibition makes them part of a bigger project and conversation in a similar sense.


© Alicia Kerfoot

Here are the finished products. One upper has been washed and ironed and the other only ironed (I learned that Douppioni silk does not wash well), while the undersides are quite embarrassing. I somehow never managed to get all of the stray threads neatly tucked under my stitches. I could not be called a neat ‘work-woman’ as in the fictional examples above. All of this shows my inexperience with the materials but also gives me something to consider the next time I am looking at surviving examples of footwear.


© Alicia Kerfoot

And speaking of surviving examples, I discovered yet another layer of community when I found these eighteenth-century shoes in the Victoria and Albert Museum digital collections with the 1775 Lady’s Magazine pattern adorning them. I was so excited! Suddenly the pattern became even more alive than it already was.


© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Left: Details of shoes in the Victoria and Albert Museum Collections, juxtaposed against my interpretation of the design.

The embroiderer had made so many different decisions from mine that I felt like we were having a conversation across time. She (perhaps the owner of the shoes who had spotted the pattern in the Lady’s Magazine or a professional who was hired to complete the work for another) had decided to aim the design in a different direction, with the stems pointing towards the tongue rather than the toe of the shoe and I realised that this assumes the wearer would be looking at her own feet, rather than expecting others to look at her feet. In my focus on dress as an outward expression of self, I’d forgotten Jane Austen’s narrator’s advice in Northanger Abbey: ‘Woman is fine for her own satisfaction alone’ (54). But this is not entirely true for the owner of the V&A shoes either, because I certainly gained a great deal of satisfaction from this absent person’s finery.

The thrill I felt when I found an eighteenth-century interpretation of the design I had just spent weeks replicating speaks to a sort of intertextuality I think I need to pay more attention to: when object and embroiderer and text talk to one another a connection is forged that perhaps links us not only to one another, but across time and space, to the hands and minds of those who had to decide between a chain stitch and a long-and-short stitch all those years ago, and to the objects that still embody those choices.

Author biography

Dr Alicia Kerfoot is an Assistant Professor at the College of Brockport (SUNY), where she teaches Restoration and eighteenth-century British literature and culture.


[1] Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey. 1818. Ed. John Davie (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998), 14, 54.

[2] Frances Burney, The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties. 1814. Ed. Margaret Anne Doody (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001), 104.

[3] See Rozsika Parker’s The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine for a developed discussion of this complex issue, especially page 102.

[4] Samuel Richardson, Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. 1740. Ed. Thomas Keymer and Alice Wakely (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001), 44.

[5] The History and Adventures of a Lady’s Slippers and Shoes. Written by Themselves. (London: M. Cooper, 1754), 38-9.

[6] For a discussion of how shoemakers and journeymen collaborated and competed with one another in the production of footwear see Giorgio Riello’s A Foot in the Past: Consumers, Producers and Footwear in the Long Eighteenth Century (Oxford, Oxford UP, 2006).

For our report on (and lots of pictures of) the opening of the Stitch Off display and the ‘Emma at 200’ exhibition, please follow this link.
For information about visiting the ‘Emma at 200’ exhibition at Chawton House Library, please follow this link.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *