It’s World Book Day, which means I am frantically trying to wrestle my youngest child into a costume that he is not entirely sure he wants to wear to school while I am desperately wishing I had time to sit down and read Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light instead. But there is a light at the end of this particular parental tunnel. For today also sees the publication (by Pavilion) of my new book, Jane Austen Embroidery, which I have been working on for the past few years with historic embroidery expert, Alison Larkin. And I couldn’t be happier.
Seasoned followers of the Lady’s Magazine project on Twitter or Facebook will know that the book has been a labour or love and many years in the making. It all started in 2015 when I came to own a copy of a half-year of the Lady’s Magazine for 1796 which had 6 original embroidery patterns in it. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I had been working on and off on the magazine for a decade and a half before that phone call, and in that time I had only ever seen a handful of the 650 patterns for embellishing clothes, accessories and household objects that the magazine published between 1770 and 1819. You see, the patterns were never meant to be preserved. They were designed for use and designed to be used in ways that wouldn’t necessarily survive the usage. The patterns I now owned were an accident of history.
When I posted pictures of the patterns on Twitter, I had absolutely no idea that they would have the impact that they did. People loved them and I loved telling them what I could about them from my research over the years. But I also knew I had a lot to learn, too, and boy did I learn a lot when I released the patterns online so people could start making and adapting them for themselves.
The result was the #StitchOff. I have said it before, but I’ll say it again: The #StitchOff was the most lovely thing that I have done in my career to date. Being part of a community of people – first time stitchers to textile artists, Embroiderer’s Guild members and RSN graduates – across 3 continents united by their shared love of needlework, craft and women’s history was energising. And how fitting it was that all this was because of a magazine that owed so much of its success to its creation of a community of subscribers who chatted and debated with each other in the pages of the magazine itself.
Getting to display and share some 60 or so of the many gorgeous #StitchOff items at Chawton House, in a room dedicated to women’s accomplishments at the Emma at 200 exhibition, was a terrific experience. Seeing these rare patterns brought back to life some 200 and more years since their first publication was, frankly, moving.
The exhibition ran for 6 months and I felt both proud and sad when I went to Chawton to pack up the work to send back to its makers. I wanted to do something more. I just couldn’t think what.
And then, I got an invitation from one of the first people to get involved in the #StitchOff, Alison Larkin, to speak at the Yorkshire and Humberside Embroiderer’s Guild. I did a talk on the needlework from Jane Austen’s day – after all, we know she read the Lady’s Magazine – to the #StitchOff, proudly showing off the work of the Stitch-Offers along the way. Alison bought several pieces that she worked up for the Stitch Off for display, one created while working at the Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby.
At the end of the talk, I had lots of fabulous questions from the audience, but one struck a particular chord. A very experienced embroiderer – someone who had been stitching for decades – pointed to one of the slides I had shown of a Lady’s Magazine pattern and said: ‘I couldn’t do that’. I couldn’t understand why. She replied, that looking at the pattern was like looking at a photo of a completed dish in a cookbook without an ingredients list and method. You see, the Lady’s Magazine never printed instructed with its patterns as later Victorian magazines did. It just knew its readers (girls and women) would have the skills to interpret the patterns and to determine colours and stitches themselves.
The question started ringing in my ears. I was taught to sew as a child by my grandmother and dabbled with embroidery until my teenage years, when study got in the way of everything. But years of working on eighteenth-century dress, needlework and craft meant that I knew – in theory – what to do with the patterns and how they were imagined to look. I could tell people what to do with the patterns even if my needlework skills were not up to showing them properly. Similar thoughts were clearly occurring to the infinitely more skilled Alison. As we sat drinking coffee after the talk she said that we should do a book you know to teach other people how to do this work and to contextualise the work for them historically. I left thinking it was a nice idea, but I had no idea how to make it happen…
Fast forward a few years, and Jane Austen Embroidery is now a reality. The book gives an introduction to embroidery in Jane Austen’s Britain and has separate features by me on embroidered dress, accessories and household objects, full of references to novels by Jane Austen and her contemporaries. The practical section of the book has 15 projects based on Lady’s Magazine patterns graded for all ability levels and with full instructions devised by Alison. Some of the patterns will be familiar to those who joined in with the original #StitchOff, albeit in new interpretations. Many you won’t have seen before! And the book is just gorgeous, with beautiful illustrations by Polly Fern, and photography by Penny Wincer.
In the acknowledgements at the back fo the book, we thank various people without whom it wouldn’t have become a reality, most especially the Stitch-Offers. You know who you are. I hope the publication of the book will mean there are many more of us soon!
Thank you, Jennie.
Jane Austen Embroidery by Jennie Batchelor and Alison Larkin is published in the UK by Pavilion on 5 March 2020 at £16.99. It will be published by Dover in the US on 17 May 2020.
Professor Jennie Batchelor
School of English
University of Kent