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.