Victorian Needlework Hierarchy: How Does Your Craft Rank?

Is knitting better than sewing, or does embroidery reign supreme? Today’s crafters would scoff at the question! Yet, those weird Victorians would certainly have an opinion on the matter. When it came to needlework, what you stitched said volumes about your place in society. How do your preferred crafts rank in the Victorian needlework hierarchy?

In the September/October 2012 article “Victorian Social and Needlecraft Hierarchies in Jane Eyre,” Marika Simon exposes the Victorian needlework pecking order as told through the characters of the novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1816–1855).

Jane Eyre meets Mrs. Fairfax. Caption reads: “Mrs. Fairfax, I suppose?” Illustrated by Edmund Henry. Circa 1850. Garrett. Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images.

Jane Eyre meets Mrs. Fairfax. Caption reads: “Mrs. Fairfax, I suppose?” Illustrated by Edmund Henry. Circa 1850. Garrett. Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images.

Plain Sewing

When Jane accepts a position teaching at the village school, she is reminded to teach the poor girls how to do plain sewing and knitting. Marika explains, “At the lowest level of the needlework continuum was plain sewing. Women in the poorer, lower classes needed not only to be able to make clothing and domestic linens for their families but to repair them so as to keep their investment usable for as long as possible.”

Knitting

Knitting leads a double life in the Victorian needlework hierarchy. On one hand, knitting is utilitarian. Through a window, Jane sees the servant Hannah knitting stockings by candlelight. On the other hand, Mrs. Fairfax, the housekeeper of Thornfield, is often knitting, even during social occasions. Mrs. Fairfax knits not for utilitarian purposes, but as a way to pass the time. Marika clarifies, “While knitting was a basic accomplishment that might be taught to cottagers’ and farmers’ daughters and practiced by a rustic domestic, it also was practiced by women of a more genteel class.”

Fancy Needlework

The character Eliza Reed exemplifies the exalted stature of fancy needlework within the Victorian needlework hierarchy. Marika says, “Using fancy needlework to embellish ecclesiastical linens, Eliza creates beauty but in a regimented, dutiful fashion empty of passion though full of moral rectitude.”

Most of today’s crafters create for pleasure rather than out of necessity. In every issue of PieceWork, we celebrate all forms of needlework, without judging one to be grander than the others. That is a good thing!

—Elizabeth


Celebrate all forms of needlework with PieceWork!

3 Comments

  1. Frances R at 1:27 pm June 6, 2017

    I loved reading your article – it also made me think, about my grandmother, a great ‘ranker’.
    I think she would say that you were writing about Early Victorians.
    She was a Late Victorian, and her ranking of crafts differed from your Brontë sources.

    I am 68, and began to learn craftwork at the age of 4, from my grandmother, who grew up in the later part of the Victorian age (as part of a household that relied on servants to do the housework and cooking, gardening, etc.). She went to “Finishing School”, in the late 1890’s. This was mostly about good manners and fine needlework of all kinds. She considered herself an authority on handwork because of this training, and her views would have been the views of the age in which she was trained – the Late Victorian age.

    In my grandmother’s eyes, mending was the highest art (very fine work, the entire purpose having been to keep undetectable the fact that the item had had to mended). She taught me hand-sewing for this purpose. I still love mending, and do it for others.
    Second in rank was knitting. She taught me to mend knitting before she taught me how to knit socks for the family. In her mind, the usefulness of knitting was what gave it its importance. I still knit socks, and love her for having taught me how to.
    Sewing to make clothing was again useful, but hand-sewing it (as I did) was not useful – she celebrated the invention of the sewing machine. But Granny did not consider machine-sewing handwork (my mother, her daughter, used a machine to sew all our clothing). I don’t remember her views on weaving (she did none herself, and it was not from her that I learned to weave), but it’s just possible she would have considered the loom a lowly machine!
    Lower in rank In my grandmother’s view, was fine embroidery and tapestry work. This was less important, because less necessary. Very beautiful, skilled, time-consuming, yes. She called lacework, tatting, and embroidery ‘decorative work’. Grand, perhaps, but ultimately unnecessary! My grandfather spent all his time producing this kind of work. She voiced no objection to this. Perhaps it made their poverty undetectable.

    Nevertheless, the idea that today crafters create for pleasure rather than out of necessity would probably have been celebrated by my grandmother. She enjoyed gardening and would have ranked that higher than any handwork! (“Worth wasting one’s time on.”) But her gardens were always filled not with vegetables but with flowers and shrubbery. Creating a lovely garden for the pleasure it might bring might even have been ranked by her as the highest necessity.

    I will grant that Granny’s focus on usefulness was influenced by their fall from relative affluence in the 1920’s, and the subsequent dire Depression. But to me, as a child, it sounded like the point of view of the lost Golden Age.

    Full Version of recollections I was drawn to write in response to reading your article 
    (almost 2000 words long, so I don’t expect you to read it!)

    I am 68, and began to learn craftwork at the age of 4, from my grandmother, who grew up in the later part of the Victorian age (in Ireland, as part of a household that relied on servants to do the housework and cooking, gardening, etcetera). She went to “Finishing School”. This was mostly about good manners and fine needlework of all kinds.

    She married my grandfather, who was supposed to go into the Navy, and hated the prospect, but did, at the outbreak of the First World War. However, he was immediately captured, and spent the war in a prisoner of war camp, the first time he became acquainted with ordinary people rather than officers and gentlemen – he learned handicrafts from the prisoners of war who were sailors – whose main purpose was mending and creating what ships of the day needed for their rigging and sails, and keeping everything on board. So besides intricate knotting, he learned how they turned this skill into making jewellery the same way, using fine threads, and tough stitching with needle and thread, which again was used as embellishment for garments for their girlfriends using fine threads, and knitting, to make nets but also their own  clothes to keep them warm in their wet and windy ocean outdoor work-lives.

    My grandparents saw themselves as failures in England after the war, and dicded to become colomnists, in South Africa (but were so inept they gave all their money away on the dock before sailing, to a man who said he would make them millions if they invested everything in some scheme, probably diamonds, in South Africa. They had no idea they were heading into a penniless future. My grandfather had bought a very simple early very Victorian “knitting machine” with sufficient yarn to knit clothes for himself and his young wife, in their new life.

    My grandmother herself did little handwork that remember; just a little mending here and there. My grandfather earned what money they had by doing handwork. This was mainly knitting fashionable clothes for women, which my grandmother wore about town, which attracted interest in where she got them from; she took orders. She also kept an eye out for the latest fashions being worn, doing little sketches for my grandfather to devise patterns to produce garments similar. He never thought of himself as talented, just as a fool and a failure. They both retained a pride in where “their people” came from (their families being of a higher class than others) but, brought up with and by servants, they themselves never had servants in the rest of their life together.

    In my grandmother’s eyes, without any doubt whatever, mending was the highest art! (Very fine work, the entire purpose having been to keep undetectable the fact that the item had had to mended) She taught me plain sewing for this purpose, and knitting.
    Second was knitting. And in her mind, the usefulness of knitting was what gave it its importance. As the firstborn daughter, my role in life was, in her mind, to be the maker of socks for all the family from the age of 4, and the mender of those socks. If I didn’t want to mend, then I must learn how to knit to prevent heels and toes becoming worn, but pulls and tears will happen, so one must learn how to fix them. I began knitting with socks, and only later was I shown that simple neckwarmers were also possible – and useful; as were mittens (socks without heels; thumb gussets were fun).

    Meanwhile, my grandfather was using needle and thread, to do fine embroidery and tapestry work.
    In my grandmother’s Late Victorian view, this was less important, because less necessary. Very beautiful, skilled, time-consuming, yes. But ultimately unnecessary! And it wasn’t as if my grandfather’s work was predominantly pretty-pretty Victorian lacy fluff – my grandfather did this work mostly to create furnishings. One of my aunts had an entire house furnished with his work – highly decorated traditional chair seats and backs and cushions, but also carpets (large wide central floor carpets of ethnic designs as well as smaller ones, even a stair carpet that went round corners), and ‘carpet bags’ and tea-trays (these had beautiful work affixed to the wooden base, with a pane of glass above to protect it from the tea service, and spills – basically picture frames with handles). In the 1960’s we collaborated, my grandfather and I, in designing and making clothing in response to the fashions of the time 50 years ago; I still have a vest he stitched for me in Assisi embroidery. He would send me off to the Victoria & Albert museum to make notes about the embroideries and tapestries there. By then he was selling none of his work, it was made to give away, or to make up for living off other people in their homes (like my aunt – my grandparents ended their successive lives living all over the place by living in my large family’s home, as part of the family, for their last decade or so). They visited people, basically, until people didn’t really want to take the responsibility any more – we were by far the poorest members of their family, but my parents had the highest tolerance, the greatest hearts, of all their many friends and family. In retrospect, I see that my grandparents retained their sense of entitlement to the very end! Their room (a bed-siitting room) was a world apart from the rest of our farmhouse. But as a grand-daughter, I just loved them as they were, and all of us (I am the eldest of 8) found their funny ways immensely amusing. Granny had what was called “an eagle eye”. She was a stickler for correct behaviour; we were not brought up thus. But Granny had been the perfect teacher for my four-year-old self. I was a grubby outdoor tomboy loner by nature, perfectly happy in my own company. Somehow this petite fussy deaf Victorian lady had the knack of taming me, engaging me in the art of persistence and consistency-of-stitch-length and knitting tension – and instilling in me a pride in the accomplishment of near-perfection, the way things simply Ought To Be; which, for the rest of my life, has sat comfortably side-by-side with my natural preference for letting things go the way they will go, far more like Elizabeth Zimmerman!

    When I was young, I made cloth dolls to give to people, and these became an easy answe to the problem of deciding what to make for birthday presents – me vast family of cousins had so many birthdays, and, for later birthdays and Christmas, it was a relief to simply make additional outfits for dolls already given. I also did small bits of embroidery for fun. For me, all handwork is done not only to pass the time (fill my life) but also, I suppose one could say for ‘therapy’. It does me good, It keeps me happy. And it can do others good too – I do love to do knitting for charity, and I do love mending things for people now (always remembering that as a small child I had worked doggedly to learn how to never to have to do so!). I still give handmade gifts.

    As a teenager, I hand-sewed much of my own clothing, of entirely my own design, using fabrics from Thrift stores; I also owned an old Singer sewing machine, but that I used more to sew leather, jackets and bags mostly. I think I’d rate designing and sewing clothing as the ‘higher’ of my past arts. 
    I also did very fine Victorian macramé which sold well as jewellery (necklaces and bracelets). I also did tatting (which I think of as much the same as macramé – I still think of Victorian macramé as a wonder, lovely to work).

    In my twenties for a while I earned a living doing elaborate entirely hand-stitched quilting for interior decorators (large works to be hung framed on walls! my grandmother would have shuddered in horror). The clients required that these look as if they were heirlooms, so the material costs were low – I went to Thrift stores to buy worn old fabrics of a bygone age, which were sold for almost no cost, being torn and stained here and there! But the work was time consuming. At the same time, I also produced machine-sewn stuffed toys for a toy shop; teddy bears became the most lucrative. I probably rate both activities rather low because I was making many much the the same! Quilting and stuffed toys rank quite low in my view, I see. Now, I think I would rather knit to sell, than sew to sell, if I needed an income from my handwork. But machine sewing is fast, and you need that speed to earn a living – unless an interior decorator with salesman skills turns up! Then all that hand-stitched work can pay off, hour-by-hour because of the enormous commission possible. I was not paid by the hour,m but for the end result – possibly by the square foot! Maybe I rate the quilting skill I developed to do that, as ‘low’, because it is for the rich alone, and I think of them as the foolish rich, because what they wanted was the impression of antiquity, while what they were getting was hours and hours of skill paid at a low hourly rate for an extremely expensive wall decoration!

    In my thirties, while working hard at a living working with other people’s children (who I did teach crafts), I really got into weaving, and particularly on a rigid heddle loom. This was an intellectual interest, I studied the craft. I loved weaving. I probably thought that I would retire to weave all day! But I am a person who seems to have gone through successive “crazes” which eventually ease out of my life when I move on to another fibre-work passion. Working with fibre has accompanied me all my life through; however, it is by no means the only craft I engage in.

    I have only taken up knitting all the time late in life, and do so mainly because it frees my seriously arthritic hands from pain, and brings me peace and deep satisfaction. I also love to laugh at how “in” knitting has become, especially in North America, and since Kaffe Fassett. The art has become fine and brilliant, attracting great minds. I love this, immensely. I would love to have seen Granny grapple with the relative importance of this – for her, knitting was strictly matter-of-fact, non-decorative, and absolutely necessary – but as I say, this made it more worthy to do.

    So, for me, knitting seems to ‘rank’ Number One. The current highest art.
    Which is not where I placed it for most of my life. Although I have always knitted clothing for myself and others, from time to time, I have previously not thought of the craft as an art, or even much of a craft. I have always enjoyed knitting as a mathematical delight; both the doing and the inventing, and, as EZ put it, the unventing. ‘Unventing’ for me principally celebrates the magical charm knitting has for turning the mind away from troubled thoughts, and bringing deep peace to the heart. Weaving can lull you into calm, but for me, knitting lifts the mind into gliding flight.

    • Tracey D at 5:01 pm June 17, 2017

      Dear Frances,

      I thoroughly enjoyed reading about yours and your Granny’s different rankings of the crafts you both practiced. Thank you so much for sharing your families’ story.

  2. Tamara Schmiege at 9:36 am June 13, 2017

    Dear Frances R.,

    Thank you so much for your response to our blog post. We so appreciate you sharing your story about how the various crafts have ranked in both your life and in your grandmother’s life. So happy to hear that knitting brings you such peace—we can very much relate.

    Best wishes,
    The PieceWork Editorial Staff

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