Sometimes there are benefits to spending far too much time on Twitter, and I was so excited when earlier this year I saw tweets about the Lady’s Magazine Stitch-Off pop up on my feed. In this short blog post I will describe my Stitch-Off experience, working with embroidery patterns from a 1796 edition of the Lady’s Magazine.
I am currently working on a PhD related to academic dress history , but my first degree was in textile design with embroidery. I have created small embroidered pieces intermittently over the past few years, though often struggling to find the time or motivation without a set project. The Stitch-Off, so perfectly linking research with the opportunity to try out some historical patterns for myself, was the ideal project to get me sewing again. When Jennie told me about the Chawton House / Jane Austen connection, the incentive was even greater!
I have had a go at three of the Lady’s Magazine patterns. I decided to think of them as trials, using different materials and stitches to see what worked best. My pieces will not be the most polished or accomplished in the exhibition, but I like to think they represent the eighteenth-century lady who loves embroidery, but was perhaps a little rusty when she started, and too impatient to go out and buy materials so made do with what she had already in her sewing basket! My method was simply to copy the patterns by eye, though I did sketch some details onto the fabric first with chalk pencil. The first two samples come from the pattern for a gown or apron, and the pattern for a gentleman’s cravat. I used white cotton thread on white muslin, I thought the combination was the most historically appropriate. The muslin has quite an open weave, which made for some fiddly moments, but I was pleased with the historical look when finished. The sprig from the gown or apron pattern worked much better, carried out in satin stitch, split stitch and French knots. For the cravat pattern I used chain stitch to imitate tambour work, but I don’t think it worked quite as well.
I wanted to introduce some colour (and some of my own taste) into the next pattern I tried, the pattern for a gown. I used a lovely (but small, which I later regretted) piece of silk linen that I had lying around, and a combination of cotton and linen threads from my very messy embroidery cupboard. I started out thinking I’d just do a little bit, but over a couple of weeks I managed to complete the whole design! I used a combination of split stitch, chain stitch and whipped running stitch. When a couple of my colours ran out halfway through I decided to be resourceful, eighteenth century stitchers must have had these problems too – and they couldn’t just go online and order more! I was in agonies about how to finish the piece. It looked very rough and ready left un-mounted, but was too small to do much with. After a discussion with the lovely lady in my local fabric shop, I decided to mount it onto some beautiful white linen and add a little more white on white embroidery. Though this means that you can no longer see the back (I was sad about this as I love to look at the back of other people’s work, it can teach us so much), it completes the piece and gave me the opportunity for a little more creativity.
I have a long-standing interest in historical embroidery, but this is the first time I have tried following a pattern. After graduating the first time round, I worked in textile design for a while but was also the research assistant on a historical embroidery research project centred on the collections of the Needlework Development Scheme. The purpose of the NDS was to promote interest in embroidery and raise the standards of embroidery education. The project involved spending a lot of time with embroidery samples dating from the 16th century right up to the 1960s – which was obviously wonderful – but also interviewing people about their experiences of the NDS. We travelled the country talking to women who had been involved with the scheme, which ran from 1934? to 1961, and usually ended up discussing women’s unique relationship with embroidery, the importance of hand skills, and how much you can learn from these objects created with such care and craftsmanship. Hand embroidery is a timeless skill – and when I stitch I love to think how little the practice has changed. It links me straight back to the embroiderers involved with the NDS, and to the women who first attempted the Lady’s Magazine patterns in 1796.
This has been a wonderful project and I am definitely going to have a go at some of the other Stitch Off patterns. It has been especially exciting to see how many people of all different standards and backgrounds have had a go and shared updates on Twitter, and it is great that the efforts are going to be on show for the public at the Emma at 200 exhibition. While my own research centres on a very different period (the First World War, 1914-1918), I rely heavily on women’s magazines in my research, so working with these patterns has led to some interesting thoughts about women’s relationship with printed media and the possible material outcomes. For my next project, I may have to try out one of the dressmaking patterns from the war period!
Lucie Whitmore is a PhD researcher at the School of Culture and Creative, University of Glasgow.
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.