Needlework Patterns in the Era of Jane Austen

Recently, I was given a book by a friend who is well aware of my dual interests in needlework and the Regency. The book is Needlework Patterns in the Era of Jane Austen, by Jody Gayle. I was completely unaware of this book until I removed the wrapping paper. Since it was just published this year, I suspect other needlewomen and Regency aficionados may not yet know about this book, either. Therefore, I thought I would take this opportunity to review it.

My thoughts on Needlework Patterns in the Era of Jane Austen . . .

The editor of this book, Jody Gayle, states that she is a "literary archaeologist," which is something of a misnomer, at least when it comes to this book, since there are only a half dozen pages of text in the entire book. Although, if one is willing to stretch the meaning of the term "literary" to mean anything to do with books or other publications, then it can be used as an adjective for Ms. Gayle’s "archaeological" efforts in compiling this book. In her Acknowledgements, she thanks the Philadelphia Museum of Art Library for giving her permission to reproduce a selection of plates from the Repository of arts, literature, commerce, manufactures, fashions, and politics, published by Rudolph Ackermann, in England, in the early nineteenth century. She also thanks the authors of Regency fiction for keeping that period alive in the minds of their readers, even two hundred years later.

Needlework Patterns in the Era of Jane Austen is essentially a picture book. It includes nearly all of the patterns for needlework which were published in Ackermann’s Repository of Arts . . . through the last year of the Regency. Though the title page states the patterns date from 1809 to 1820, in actual fact, the patterns reproduced begin with 1811. Ackermann’s Repository was first published in 1809, but either those first issues did not include needlework patterns, or they were not available for reproduction. That is not made clear by the editor. Though the title suggests that these patterns were all published within the lifetime of Jane Austen, she died in July of 1817, not 1820. However, the date range is almost exactly that of the decade of the English Regency, with which Austen is most commonly associated. However, Ackermann’s Repository was not an inexpensive publication and one must wonder whether, as is suggested on the back cover, Jane Austen would have had access to these designs. Perhaps at the home of one of her more affluent friends or family?

The needlework patterns are presented in chronological order, beginning with that of November of 1811 and running through November of 1820. It is likely that Ackermann introduced these needlework pattern plates that November of 1811, and then published one most months through 1820. Having perused several digital issues of Ackermann’s Repository for this period, it seems that needlework patterns were omitted when the space was needed for other items. Or, perhaps the designer of those patterns was sometimes unable to provide a design? Regardless of the reasons, needlework patterns were not a monthly feature in Ackermann’s Repository. Therefore, the gaps in this book are almost certainly due to the irregular publishing schedule of these needlework designs.

Despite the term "needlework patterns" in the title of this book, these design plates actually carry a number of different labels. The very first plate in the book is labeled "A Border & a Pattern of a Veil." If this plate was indeed the first needlework pattern published, perhaps it was so popular that Ackermann decided to make it a semi-regular feature. The next pattern is labeled "Pattern for Needle Work." By the end of 1813, most of the plates were labeled "Needlework Patterns." The January 1814 plate is labeled "Half a Collar" and the January 1816 plate is labeled "Muslin Patterns." From that date on, either "Needlework Patterns" or "Muslin Patterns" were usual, though "Muslin Patterns" was the most common. Based on these plate labels and the delicacy of the designs, it seems most likely that these patterns were intended for use on garments rather than home furnishings or other purposes.

All of these design plates were originally published in black and white and the reproductions in this book are all also printed in black and white. There are a number of plates with no labels, or on which the labels have been fully or partially trimmed off. Based on a study of several digital copies of original editions of this magazine from this period, it appears that any such defects were part of the original publication and cannot be considered the result of sloppy reproduction practices for this book. Fortunately, these slight defects do not in any way affect the actual needlework designs themselves. Though some of the patterns are a bit faint, again, probably as were the originals, they are all legible enough to be appreciated.

Needlework Patterns in the Era of Jane Austen is not a how-to manual for beginning or even intermediate needle-workers. No instructions of any kind are provided, only the plates themselves, just as they would have been to the original subscribers of Ackermann’s Repository. Many ladies of that era would have known how to enlarge or reduce the patterns to the size they needed for their project, as well as how to transfer it to the cloth on which they intended to work their embroidery. Those women who did not have such skills might turn to their maid, or a professional needlewoman in their area, who would be able to adapt and transfer the designs for them. Other ladies might have taken the design to their dressmaker to do the transfer, or even to handle the embroidery for them as well. The lack of instructions published with these patterns would have been little impediment to converting these designs into lovely embroidered garments or accessories for the Regency women who subscribed to Ackermann’s Repository.

Gayle herself is clearly not a needlewoman, as she states that these designs could be used for needlepoint. Even a flip though a few of the pages would make it clear to an experienced needlewoman that these designs are in no way suited to needlepoint. Rather, they all seem to be most suitable for garment embellishment, using techniques such as simple embroidery, white-work, tambour-work or needle-lace. Most of the designs are for borders or edgings which might be used to decorate the flounce or a delicate collar for a special gown, or the border of a fine veil. Many of these designs would also be quite suitable for the hem of a chemise or the border of a fine handkerchief. There are also a few all-over designs which could be used to embellish plain muslin to emulate the sprigged muslin which was fashionable at that time.

The essay which precedes the plates is riddled with errors, again suggesting that not only is Gayle not a needlewoman, she is also not a student of textile history. She states that embroidery had a long tradition as a woman’s occupation in England, when, in actual fact, embroidery was the sole province of men until the second half of the seventeenth century. She also states that samplers were displayed in the family home to demonstrate the stitchery talents of the daughters of the house. That was most certainly not the case during the Regency, in England or America. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, long after the Regency had ended, samplers were a woman’s needlework reference, which she used to remind herself of how to execute a particular stitch. Many young women also embroidered the alphabet on their samplers, to be used as reference when they were marking their garments or the family linens. These very practical and useful pieces of cloth were kept folded in a woman’s work-box. Few, if any of them, were fit to be displayed in public, since they were sadly lacking in any attractive design, not to mention the inconvenience to the needlewoman if she had to go to the framed sampler when she needed to check the working of a particular stitch. Samplers which were fit to be framed began to be stitched by girls who attended schools for young ladies during the Victorian period as a showpiece for their education.

Though I cannot recommend the textile history presented in this book, the plates do make it a valuable reference work for students of the Regency period, whether their interest is needlework, clothing, textiles in general, or just to have a collection of the needlework patterns published during the Regency by Ackermann in his famed Repository. This book was published earlier this year and is available from a few online booksellers, though it does not appear to be readily available in bricks and mortar book stores. There is also an electronic edition, though I suspect that would be less useful to needlework students and designers. I much prefer the paper edition, particularly if one wishes to trace or otherwise copy a particular design. These patterns are all in the public domain, so there are no restrictions on the use of these designs, either as embellishments for creating Regency clothing or for any other purpose.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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21 Responses to Needlework Patterns in the Era of Jane Austen

  1. There’s a single article in the 1810 jan-june issue, which is motifs for fancy-work, which could be adapted in a number of ways
    You and I should write a book of the needlework and fabrics of the Regency together at some point… being textile historians and competent enough to make demo pieces to photograph.
    The early Ackermann’s have fabric swatches, or paintings of them, at the beginning of each issue, which is something I want to pursue as well at some point.
    Some of the Ackermann’s patterns could, with a bit of imagination be adapted to pillow lace as well, to anyone competent enough to make a good pricking. And I wish I was. One of those skills I’d like to take up again….
    So many interesting things in life and only 24 hours in every day….

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thanks for the link. Interesting that many of the motifs which were included with that article are classical. In the needlework patterns which were published subsequently, few could be called classical. Most were quite organic and floral in design. I wonder if that reflects the preferences of the subscribers or the pattern designers?

      A book might be fun, but it will have to wait until I get out from under the promotion for my novel. A most time-consuming effort!

      Those are real swatches in Ackermann’s, a topic on which I am planning an upcoming article.

      I tried to learn pillow lace while I was living in Ireland, but was not there long enough to really get the hang of it. That is also on my list of needlework skills which I would like to acquire before I shuffle off this mortal coil. One can only hope!



  2. Julie says:

    Interesting review – I will definitely go looking for the book. I love how the author cites the work as “needlepoint” – a sure giveaway that she knows little about needlework – this is the “catchall” that so many people use to mean any kind of work done with a needle. I do, however, take issue with a couple of points you made – that embroidery was the sole purview of men until the middle of the 17th century. While professional embroiderers were certainly all men until that time, women were making samplers, and therefore, doing embroidery, at least as early as 1500 – from an inventory listing “elne of lynnyn for a sampler for the Queen”. There are also undated samplers that historians believe are from the 15th century, and the earliest dated sampler known to date, Jane Bostocke, is dated 1598, and was certainly stitched by a woman.

    Secondly, while it’s true that early samplers were made as pattern reference, by the Regency period, they were schoolgirl projects, and often displayed in homes to show that a girl’s parents had sent her to school, and that therefore, a generous dowry was likely in the offing. If they weren’t displayed, there was no reason for so many mothers to unpick the date on the sampler, to pass their daughters off as “not yet over the hill”.

    Still – I think I’d have to agree with you that this book might be interesting for a glance, it wouldn’t be one I’d recommend, either.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Women were certainly doing needlework of many kinds, even before the Middle Ages, but their work was generally considered “unskilled” and was confined to the domestic realm. Professional needlework, such as tapestries for wall or bed hangings, and even the garments of the aristocracy, based on the sources I have seen, were made by male needle-workers.

      With regard to your statement that samplers during the Regency period were displayed in the home of the maker, I must beg to differ. While in graduate school, I was fortunate to have taken a seminar on needlework with the noted textile historian, Susan Burrows Swan. Based on her years of research, she found that samplers were not considered appropriate for display in the home until the mid-Victorian period. But in those cases, the sampler was worked for the purpose of display and was not used by its maker as a stitch reference. Very often, that needle-woman had a much less ornate sampler which served that purpose.

      Apparently I was not clear in my review of this book. Though I do not recommend the two pages of textile history which accompany the plates, I do recommend this book, as the majority of it is comprised of the needlework pattern plates published during the Regency in Ackermann’s Repository. They are quite difficult to come by, so having them all together in one place makes this book a valuable reference for many interested in the Regency era.



      • Female apprentices were not unknown up to the Reformation when the lot of women became very much worse. There are always exceptions, but most careers involving training were largely the province of men, including cooks and various sewing jobs that we think of today as women’s jobs
        The tapestries from Flanders in the 14th century were worked almost exclusively by women, which was remarkable enough to be commented on. they were cheaper alternatives to the highly priced silken tapestries from France, being worked in wools. The highest paid jobs went to the orpherers, those who embroidered in metallic thread, who were certainly all male. Some of the opus anglicorum work was done by women, but not on the copes of high ranking churchmen as that would have sullied them. the Bayeaux tapestry was worked by women but it was by way of being an ‘amateur’ effort rather than a career. . All women were expected to make and embellish [if they felt the need and had the leisure for extra work] the shirts of their menfolk, from the lowest peasant woman up to and including such women as Katharine of Aragon, who sewed Henry VIII’s shirts for him.
        I have always understood that a girl’s facility with needlecraft in the regency was shown off by having decorated footstools or cushions that were pointed out as her work. Embroidering slippers was an appropriate gift to make for one’s betrothed. Most men couldn’t read the skill it takes to execute a sampler anyway….

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          Actually, more recent research has determined that the Bayeux Tapestry was commissioned by William’s half-brother, Bishop Odo, not Queen Mathilda, as legend would have it. And, that it was embroidered by men, known a seamsters, not by the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting.


          • Lol my book from the Brit Mus must be out of date

            • Kathryn Kane says:

              I can’t remember where I read it, but I will wrack my brain, and if it comes back to me, I will post the citation,


              • Thanks, any day you learn something is a good day, in my book!

              • Kathryn Kane says:

                While trying to find the book in which William’s brother, Odo, was favored as the patron of the Bayeaux Tapestry, I came across another book which I think you will really enjoy.

                It is The Bayeaux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece, by Carola Hicks. It was published in 2006.

                In it, Hicks discusses the origins and possible patrons of the tapestry. She considers Odo a major contender, but she leans toward Queen Edith, the widow of King Edward the Confessor. The evidence she provides is very compelling, since Edith was in a precarious position after the Norman conquest. The tapestry reports the facts of the events leading up to and including the invasion, but it never really paints any one of the participants in a negative light. Hicks believes this was deliberate, as Edith was using the tapestry to placate William. And it must have worked, because she was treated well by him and retained the majority of her properties for the remainder of her life. Hicks is also of the opinion that the tapestry was embroidered in England, with English materials.

                Hicks also points out that Edith retired to a convent soon after William became king. A convent with a rich tradition of both illuminated manuscripts (from which many of the motifs in the tapestry may have been drawn) and sumptuous embroidery. It seems that many of these women had entered the convent to avoid an unwanted marriage after the deaths of their husbands during the battles. Since many of them were widows, and talented needlewomen, they would have had no issue with embroidering many of the naughty activities which appear in the borders. However, she also notes that many convents actually employed male embroiderers to work on their finest pieces, or to do the most important bits on large pieces. And, when they hired both male and female needle workers, I am sure it will come as no surprise to you that even then, the men were paid much more.

                I think you will also enjoy this book because Hicks also provides a lot of information on the materials and stitches used to create the tapestry, as well as the kinds of conditions which might have existed in workshops of the time. Then, she goes on to trace the history of the tapestry down to the present day. She is a wonderful writer, so it is a most enjoyable read.



              • Many thanks! I’ll look that book out. Re widows, it was a good way to escape, it was not until Magna Carta that the king was forbidden from marrying off widows out of hand to his own choice of bridegroom, John being a worse offender in this than most.

              • Kathryn Kane says:

                From what I can tell, John was pretty much the worst of everything, man or king!


              • When he wasn’t afflicted by his temper – and I do wonder if he had a mental disorder of some sort – John was actually a fairly able administrator. And left with a country bankrupted by his idiot brother Richard the Puddinghead and his ridiculous wars and excessive ransom. One day I’m going to research John enough to write a novel in which he is an attractive character outside his rages, because literature through history gives us always wonderful Richard and wicked John, and it’s not as simple as that.

              • Kathryn Kane says:

                I shall look forward to reading your vindication of John.


      • Julie says:

        Ah – I see that you have understood something different than I have from the passages you cited. When it says that needlework had long been a woman’s occupation, you read “paid occupation” while I read “something that occupied her time” – thus the difference in understanding. Yes, women were primarily embroidering for themselves and their friends and families, embellishing clothing, or making up small gifts.

        I have been studying samplers for many years, and again, perhaps we mean different things when we say the word “sampler”. I do not mean the simple marking sampler (which would never be a pattern record, as there are only simple, repetitive patterns, and by the Regency, were only done in cross stitch.) I mean the decorative schoolgirl embroideries that are generally meant under the heading of “sampler”.

        For this, I can cite Jane Austen to show my proof: From Sense and Sensibility, chapter 26: “The house was handsome and handsomely fitted up, and the young ladies were immediately put in possession of a very comfortable apartment. It had formerly been Charlotte’s, and over the mantlepiece still hung a landscape in coloured silks of her performance, in proof of her having spent seven years at a great school in town to some effect.” I expect that once Charlotte had married, the needlework could be moved to her former room, as it was no longer required to be a testament to her schooling.

        That such samplers were “on display” is pretty well-known – I’ve taken any number of seminars and courses from well-respected textile historians, in which this is alluded to. We can also see from this Regency era caricature, that a sampler over the mantel was a common sight in Regency era drawing rooms. This one is “Farmer Giles and his wife shewing off their daughter Betty to their neighbors on her return from school” by James Gillray

        Sarah, you are right in that men would never understand the complexity in a sampler – it’s simply that it showed that the girl had been sent to school. It was much more a statement about the father than the daughter.

        • haha like having her play the pianoforte to show she had been taught, and sing something approved in her expensively acquired Italian.
          Apart from possessing my great grandmother’s sampler from the 1870s, I confess to knowing little about them, but may I hazard a guess that Farmer Giles’ daughter’s sampler is a bit of a mockery of Farmer Giles? the sampler there is the sort executed by a 10 year old, not the complex landscape described by Austen, which is more on a par with the decorated footstool or cushion cover in execution, and says perhaps that his daughter is educated but not very highly? I don’t think you can ever over-estimate the level of quite savage satire of Gillray’s cartoons, and if he did not neglect to show her hands both pudgy and uncertain on the keyboard he would not have neglected to show her deficiencies in needlework too. As I recall, Farmer Giles was satirised as the man who wanted to rise above his station and to aspire to higher estate for his offspring if not himself, and was shown making a mess of this endeavour in most cartoons that featured him. It would be just like Gillray to use subtle clues to show that this girl’s education was not as full as that of a girl who was of the gentry not the yeomanry.

          • Julie says:

            Yes, absolutely, this caricature is a savage satire of those such as Farmer Giles. But the fact that he could put a sampler upon the wall and not have anyone wonder why it’s there, is the point I’m trying to make. Simply put – schoolgirl embroidery was definitely put up on display as proof of having sent your daughter to school. Yes, Farmer Giles’ daughter’s “accomplishments” would have been paltry, and you can see just how impressed the neighbors are. But this is a scene everyone would have recognized and been happy to laugh at. This was a time when education was on the brink of change, and needlework was becoming less and less important in a girl’s schooling – but I’m simply pointing out that they did, indeed, put their daughter’s samplers on the wall.

  3. the smocking is there as an early elastic. The earliest examples depicted are 13th century, and were used as the tops of women’s aprons; there are 16th century paintings showing smocking as part of neckline and wrist bands on men’s shirts, so they had elasticated necks and wrists! I suspect it was used through to the 18th century, but was hidden by coat cuffs and cravats later, and also you have the rise of buttons which meant less fabric had to be used in a garment, Smocking is dead easy and very decorative. The working men’s smocks were hard wearing and were made of hard wearing fabrics. [I was writing a book on the history of smocking; it was one of the bits of data in the 15% I could NOT recover from other sources when I had my data trash experience, unfortunately.] It takes about 3x the width of finished garment to make a fully smocked front.
    The smocking on early smocks was just on the breast, front and back, as they tended to be reversible, and later at the top of the sleeve head and on the wrist. I have handled smocks from the early 19th century and they are much less decorative than the ones generally featured in books on smocks, as by about 1830 there was the beginnings of a ‘heraldry’ of smocks, in which different colours and patterns were used for different professions, and different counties.

  4. I suppose it’s relative; my mother started me smocking dollies dresses when I was about 7, so it’s a skill I’ve had for almost as long as ordinary embroidery. It’s not easy to stay straight unless using a patterned fabric that helps do so! I smocked all my maternity dresses to give me room to grow. And I agree, a firescreen would make a lot of sense, or a screen over the fireplace for the summer months [Kat has an earlier post about the custom of filling the grate with flowers, but a screen would hide kamikazi pigeons a bit better]

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