Daniel Defoe

April 24, 1731: English journalist and acclaimed author Daniel Defoe dies

Here’s the needlework connection to this date:

Actress Robin Wright stands in a fountain in a scene from the 1996 film Moll Flanders. Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images.

Actress Robin Wright stands in a fountain in a scene from the 1996 film Moll Flanders. Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images.

Both a prolific and acclaimed author, Daniel Defoe’s literary career began with writing about politics. Unfortunately, this led to his political foes managing to have him sent to prison on various occasions. He changed course, and published his first novel, Robinson Crusoe, in 1719. He published several novels in 1722, including Moll Flanders. Moll was adept at “plain sewing.”

Christopher John Brooke Phillips explains in his fascinating article, “Plain Work, Worsted, and Bays: Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe, and the Ancient Town of Colchester, England,” in the September/October 2014 issue of PieceWork:

  • Young Moll Flanders imagines that she will be a gentlewoman and earn her living spinning and sewing “plain work.” According to her account of 1683 in the novel penned in 1722 by Daniel Defoe (1660–1731), she had been brought to the town of Colchester, in the County of Essex, by gypsies, and left there. The parish officers placed her in the care of a “nurse” who “had also a little School, which she kept to teach Children to Read and to Work. . . .” That is, to spin and do plain work like so many other children in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
  • What of Moll’s plain work or plain sewing? Before the advent of sewing machines and stores (where anything could be bought “off the shelf”), personal and household linen was handmade. Every girl, from the poorest to the richest was required at an early age to take up the needle. They were taught at home or, as in Moll’s case, by a charity school. Particularly for the poor, and for female orphans, the basic marking of garments by embroidery, hemming, darning, and basic needlework skills provided a path to service, preferably in a prosperous household, as a maid. Those who showed particular aptitude might obtain employment as an assistant dressmaker or a milliner.
Engraving depicts a portrait of English novelist and journalist Daniel Defoe (1660–1731). Late 17th or early 18th century. Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images.

Engraving depicts a portrait of English novelist and journalist Daniel Defoe (1660–1731). Late 17th or early 18th century. Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images.

  • It was not unusual to find children as young as eight years old in gainful employment, as Moll tells us, receiving four pence [about 2 cents today] a day for sewing simple seams and stitching identity marks once they had learned the four basic elements of plain work: running and back stitches, hemming, and oversewing. Later, a child would master the applications for flat, rounded, antique, French double, hemmed double seams; gathering; whipping; attaching cords, flaps, and tapes; buttonholes; sewing on buttons; binding slits; fixing whalebones and herringboning. Making plain samplers demonstrated a child’s level of attainment and served as a reference for subsequent works.

Read Christopher’s entire article in the September/October 2014 issue of PieceWork, one of our hugely popular literary-inspired issues. Also included is Christopher’s charming companion project, “Symbols in Samplers to Cross-Stitch.”

Daniel Defoe’s novels rule!
Jeane


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