Earlier this week we were visiting friends in Chawton. If you are at all fond of early 19th-century literature, that may make you prick up your ears, because once upon a time Jane Austen lived in Chawton, and the house is now a museum. I studied English a couple of decades ago and although I am by no stretch of the imagination a "Janeite" I do enjoy her novels very much, so whenever we visit our friends I’ve been meaning to visit the house. And this time, it finally happened.
It’s definitely worth a visit, with many period items and even some interactive displays; I had a go at writing with a quill pen and oak gall ink (and have the stained fingers to prove it), and the Austen-themed Snakes & Ladders in the garden was rather fun. But for me as a stitcher the nice thing was that there were several bits of embroidery in the collection, as well as two gorgeous dresses, one of which I was allowed to touch to inspect the inside – it had raised dots on the outside which I had always assumed (when I’d seen this sort of decoration in pictures) were French knots or something like it, but in fact they are tiny tufts of thread, cut very short, and as far as I could see not held in by any sort of anchoring. We live and learn; I’d have thought the decoration might work loose in the wash or even during everyday activities, but then the ladies wearing it would not be engaging in vigorous exercise, and their delicate muslins would be cleaned most carefully. Perhaps it’ll teach me to be less worried about washing my stitching!
The most interesting things were pieces of stitching worked by Jane Austen herself, or relatives (sister, nieces); suddenly she is not just a much-admired author, but a fellow stitcher. There were some flowers in needle painting embroidery, and a lovely bit of lace – well, the card said it was lace, but it looked more like a sheer fabric applied to netting and then cut away. However it was done (and I seem to remember seeing this technique in a book some time ago) it looks lovely and delicate.
I knew that the late Victorians were mad about perforated paper (they used it for cards, bookmarks, needlebook covers and just about everything else) but I hadn’t realised it had been around before that. If Wikipedia is correct in saying that the material was first available in 1820, Jane Austen won’t have made this little workbox herself but it could well have been created by one of her nieces.
The item that really caught my eye, however, was a little purse or bag. It was worked entirely in Hardanger! Well, something uncannily like it, anyway. From what I could see (and it’s not easy to study needlework in detail when it is shut away in a glass display case) a very large square was bordered and then cut, and the entire thing finished with woven bars in two colours. If Frozen Flower is anything to go by, it must have taken forever!
Not at Jane Austen’s but at our friends’ house I found another interesting bit of embroidery, which was being used as a laptop cover. I forgot to ask where it came from, but it strikes me as South American. It shows a stylised bird (a cockerel perhaps?) and is worked free-hand in a variety of stitches including chain, straight, herringbone and stem. It’s such a cheerful piece with its bold lines and colours, and made me realise once again what a very effective stitch chain stitch is. I was going to use it in the class on Shisha embroidery anyway, but don’t be surprised if it pops up a bit more often in future.