As much as I would love to be one of those “method” writers, who experiences the world she writes about in a hands-on way, I have to confess that for the most part, I am not. Someday, maybe, but for now homeschooling three small children doesn’t lend itself easily to either travel or slipping into any version of the Regency world. I do loads of research every time I write a book, of course. Loads and loads. But I have never worn a corset. Only in my imagination have I dressed up to attend a ball. I’ve never danced a reel. But there is one area of Regency life at least that I have experienced for myself: needlework and sewing.
Sewing was an almost constant female occupation in Jane Austen’s time, and sewing an important accomplishment for a young girl to master. Girls were expected to complete an embroidery sampler before finishing their education. And of course, as well as embroidery and fancy work, women also worked at the domestic sewing of making and mending clothes, household linens, etc, since clothes were not yet available to be bought ready made. Of course, seamstresses could be hired to make clothes for you; in one of her letters, Jane Austen mentions a Miss Burton who would make a pelisse for the fee of 8 shillings. But even so, most women knew how to alter and re-make their own clothes to keep up with the current fashion trends.
Interestingly, “plain” sewing, which meant mending or sewing clothes, etc. was considered a task only to be done in a more private setting, when immediate family members were present. “Fancy” sewing– decorative embroidery and such– could be worked on in more formal, company settings.
In Pride and Prejudice, there is a hint that Elizabeth may not enjoy sewing particularly. When Darcy arrives unexpectedly at the Hunsford Parsonage, she, “sat down again at her work, with an eagerness which it did not often command.” (Work here means needlework; the word was often used in that sense). However, Jane Austen herself seems to have enjoyed sewing. In one of her letters she reports, “I was the neatest worker of the party,” speaking about a gathering of friends all working and sewing. Jane made a needle book for one of her nieces who was just learning to sew. It’s on display at Chawton Cottage, but you can see pictures here. And if you go here, you can see pictures of a quilt believed to have been made by Jane Austen, her mother, and her sister sometime around 1811.
I agree with Jane Austen; I love to sew. I’m not an expert at all, not by any stretch of the imagination. But I have embroidered many samplers. I highly recommend it if you’re looking for a fun and relaxing hobby to do while watching Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy for the millionth time, etc. Here’s a not-very-high-quality picture of my favorite that I stitched several years ago:
And now that I have children, I do a lot of my sewing for them. Which leads me to the ‘poll’ component of this post. My soon-to-be 6 year old requested a mermaid-themed birthday party this year– and so of course I immediately felt compelled to sew her a mermaid doll. But since I’m a bit of a compulsive crafter and I love trying out new patterns and designs, I couldn’t bring myself to stop with just one mermaid doll. So far, I’ve made three. And I can’t decide which one to give her!
(Of course I could ask her which one she most likes, but that would spoil the surprise, and besides I suspect like most 6 year olds her answer would be ‘all of them’ if I asked which one she’d like for her own. Also, be assured that whichever I don’t choose will still be put to good use; I also love to send dolls to charities that distribute dolls to children in need.)
At any rate, I’d love some advice/opinions. Which of these would make an almost-six-year old girl most happy?
Or Option Three:
What do you think? Do you have a favorite hobby to turn to while relaxing with Colin Firth? Or do you have another favorite way of experience just a small taste of Jane Austen’s world?