A blog by Felicity Miller…
Crafts were the gentlewoman’s skill of the time
“…young ladies can have the patience to be so very accomplished… They all paint tables, cover skreens and net purses.”
As romantic as the crafts of the period sound, basically without Netflix or social media, the ladies of the Regency era were quite bored and had to find something to keep themselves busy until they found a man of good fortune.
In modern times, needlework and painting are hobbies, to be enjoyed during leisure time. Admittedly, all of a gentlewoman’s time in the Austen era was leisure time, but these crafts served many practical purposes as well. Despite not being part of the workforce, women were still expected contribute to the household in their own elegant way. Their mending, production and embellishment of clothing and household goods was seen as their provision for the family, along with the eventual production of sons. Some of the items produced by young ladies were purely decorative, allowing women the chance to exhibit their skills with covered screens or embroidered cushions when company was present. No doubt a boastful mother like Pride and Prejudices’s Mrs Bennet would have casually drawn attention to their daughters needlework when in the company of potential husbands!
A lady’s skill with a needle also saved the family the expense of replacing clothes, buying pre-made or pre-decorated goods, or disposing of damaged items. Many an embroidery has proved to carefully hide tears or stains!
More than just a craft
In addition to being a soothing and useful craft, needlework also provided a source of gifts for family and friends. Hand-hemmed and embroidered handkerchiefs would have been a perfect gift for all parties, especially before the invention of Kleenex. Such gifts could also easily become a lover’s token! A handkerchief could be quickly exchanged before the chaperone at the ball realised such an open and untoward advance had been made. The requirements of polite society would have made it very difficult for a lady to show more affection than she felt.
Painting was also considered a very suitable pastime for the accomplished lady, especially with the development of watercolours. Unlike oil paints, water colours were inexpensive and could be transported. More importantly, they washed off ones dress and lily-white hands with little difficulty. The subdued colours were more suited for pretty, innocent paintings, such as landscapes or flowers, that would not tax the minds of young ladies. In fact, watercolours provided an excellent educational tool for the female charges of every governess. Rather than bore a young girl with the study of science, simply send her into the garden for “botanical studies”. A large part of a girl’s education, therefore, consisted of the careful capturing of plants in watercolour botanical plates, with clear labels, notes, and often pressed samples of the same plants.
While oil on canvas continued to be the favourite medium for large portraits, Austen’s era saw many smaller landscapes, miniature portraits, and botanicals produced by budding artists amongst the ladies of the household, framed and mounted around the house. These would, of course, be kept primarily in the family quarters, but became increasingly common gifts for family, friends and beaus.
Craft workshops at A Picnic at Pemberley 2018
If you’ve never tried it before (or even if you have!) come along to two workshops at the Picnic at Pemberley this year. Leave behind the hectic of 2018 and experience the tranquil pursuit of embroidery – taking home a perfect souvenir emblazoned with the initials of someone special or a secret symbol that is significant to only a certain few – or attend the Watercolours’ workshop – it might be a humble recreation of a simple garden flower or piece of fruit, but where does the fulfillment lie?….Could it simply be the experience of sitting in the Abbey garden feeling very ‘Regent’. (No extra cost for embroidery and Watercolours’ workshop).
Book your tickets for A Picnic at Pemberley taking place on 8th September 2018.