This Week in History: Jane Austen and Her Needlework

December 16, 1775: Beloved author Jane Austen is born. Jane Austen and her work, both literary and needle, continue to fascinate. She has a substantial fan base here at Interweave: Interweave published six special issues, Jane Austen Knits, and several articles about her grace the pages of previous issues of PieceWork. They include “Whodunit? Ask Jane Austen” by Mary Polityka Bush in the September/October 2016 Literary issue and “Jane Austen’s Women and Their Crafts” by Jennifer Forest in the September/October 2014 issue.

Jane Austen

Portrait of Jane Austen, from the memoir by J. E. Austen-Leigh. From a watercolor by James Andrews of Maidenhead based on an unfinished work by Cassandra Austen. Engraving by William Home Lizars. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons{PD-1923}.

Pamela D. Toler’s writes in her article, “Jane Austen’s Patchwork Coverlet,” in the September/October 2008 issue:

  • Austen’s letters to Cassandra are filled with references to both her novels and her needlework. She reports on the progress of Sense and Sensibility—“I can no more forget it than a mother can forget her suckling child”—and fears of “finding a clever novel too clever–and finding my own story & my own people all forestalled.” She writes about the work she is doing with her own “two hands and a new Thimble”: knitting gloves, altering dresses, making shirts for their brother Edward. On one occasion, she even crows a little over her needlework skills: “I am proud to say that I am the neatest worker of the party.”
  • In the Austen coverlet, diagonal rows of more than 200 lozenges (diamond-shaped pieces) surround the central medallion, itself cut into a diamond shape around a printed basket of flowers. The lozenges are set in a trellis pieced from rhomboids made from fabric that is cream spotted with black. A deep border of more than 2,000 tiny lozenges, one-ninth the size of those surrounding the central medallion, edges the coverlet. Each patch, large and small, has been cut to display the fabric’s motif to best advantage.
Jane Austen

Jane Austen lived in this cottage in Chawton, Hampshire, England. Photo by Rudi Riet and courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

  • In a letter dated May 31, 1811, Jane Austen asks her sister, “Have you remembered to collect pieces for the Patchwork? – We are now at a standstill.” The family had been living on a very modest income following the death of the girls’ father in 1805, and Austen’s letters are full of wry descriptions of updating old hats and pelisses (cloaks) with new trim and otherwise making do. The making of a new dress once or twice a year was a major event. Under the circumstances, collecting the necessary fabric pieces must have been part of the challenge of creating the coverlet.

Amazingly, Jane’s coverlet and several other examples of her needlework survived. They are in the collection of the Jane Austen’s House Museum. Located in Chawton, Hampshire, England, the house (pictured above) is open to the public, and much of her work is on display. Jane lived there from 1809 until a few months before she died on July 18, 1817.

And there you have it—just another example of needlework’s long and rich history! Thank you, Jane, for your compelling writing and for your skill with needles and thread. We shall remain devoted fans.

P.S. Two of the articles mentioned above were included in PieceWork’s Literary issues. We have another Literary issue planned for 2018. The submission deadline is January 5. Details are in our Editorial Calendar and in our Contributor Guidelines, which are available here. We hope to hear from you!


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