antique textiles Feminism History Hull & Humber local history Textile Arts York

“Ladies Made Happy!”

“Victorian parlour ladies” has become a derogatory phrase when it comes to describing the history of crafts.  I wrote this some time ago for Love:Crochet. Crochet is not ‘my’ craft but it was interesting to look at its history, as it was so beloved of the “Victorian parlour ladies” of the 1840s and sheds some light on why, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it became easy for some folk, taking their lead from historians, to be dismissive of the achievements and interests of nineteenth century women. 

Whenever I see that phrase “Victorian parlour ladies”, or – the contemporary equivalent “hobby” [knitters, spinners, weavers, insert craft here!], I see a sexist attempt to belittle craftspeople.  The whole idea of Victorian (female) dilettantes  had its roots in the Victorian era itself.  There is also a myth about the court of Queen Victoria dabbling in crafts when they were fashionable. In a future post, I hope to show how this is largely a fantasy.   In fact, the Victorian age and the early twentieth century  had many examples of middle class women (and men) reviving almost lost skills and using them to help working class people make a living. The most obvious example of this being William Morris’s revival of handspinning and weaving in Westmorland. Crafts were a part of the daily life of people of all social classes; for some, they might add a small but valuable income; for others, they didn’t just pass the time but also were a way of showing faith and virtue. Knitting and crochet were democratic. Why should the work of women of any social class be belittled or used to belittle contemporary craftspeople? 

Surviving textiles show the “parlour ladies” made beautiful things. Why wouldn’t they?  They had the time. I think it was more complex than just conspicuous look-at-me-I-can-afford-to-spend-hours-crocheting-doilies-that-must-mean-I’m-RICH! 

I will look at this in more depth soon but for now, here is a piece inspired by William Etty’s painting ‘The Crochet Worker’. Mary Ann Purdon was the daughter of a Hull clerk; not a grand lady but typical of so many women who would have spent their spare time profitably.


“LADIES MADE HAPPY! It is the observation of one of our best writers, ‘that elegant occupation is the source of happiness to the amiable sex….’ “   

From an advertisement for ‘Guide to Knitting, Netting and Crochet’, Manchester Times, 1844.

In the 1840s, the first written instructions for crochet appeared in print. In the same decade, William Etty painted this portrait of his great-niece, Mary Ann Purdon. The painting is often referred to as ‘Study’; a preliminary work for a painting that was never completed.

The 1840s saw a craze for crochet, which had formerly been called ‘Shepherd’s Knitting’. This uncharacteristic, quiet painting, a study for ‘The Crochet Worker’, is undated but was probably painted in the late 1840s, towards the end of his life.

Artist William Etty, R.A., (1787 – 1849) was infamous for painting nudes – not cosy domestic scenes. John Constable famously called Etty’s painting “Youth on the Prow, and Pleasure at the Helm”, “the bum-boat”. Wikipedia calls it “particularly gruesome”. (Unfairly – it’s a brilliant painting).

Etty went from son of York gingerbread maker, to famous Royal Academician. His statue stands outside York Art Gallery, where in 2011-12, there was a popular exhibition of his work, ‘William Etty: Art and Controversy”.

He was born one of ten children, to Matthew and Esther Etty. Only five of the young family  made it to adulthood.

Etty’s father rented a mill on the Mount, in York and ran a gingerbread shop on Feasegate. William’s earliest drawings were done in chalk or in the flour on the mill’s walls. Sometimes the gingerbread was gilded with elaborate designs. It is said some were done by Etty.

hull packetAt 14, William was apprenticed to a printer, and worked for seven years, as a compositor for  ‘The Hull Packet’ newspaper, living with his master and his family in the backstreets of Hull. He hated every moment of it. During that time,  one of William’s older brothers, Thomas went to sea, and came home one time with a box of watercolours for him. Etty decided to ask his wealthy uncle to fund his studies to be an artist in London, and although his uncle ignored his first begging later, caved in with the second.

Etty arrived in London determined to become a painter, not a printer and in 1807 became a student at the Royal Academy.  In his day, he was to become the most famous artist in England.

In his later years, he retired home to York, where he continued to work, although he was useless with money and left anything practical to his brother, Walter. Etty was fond of his extended family, writing chatty letters to his brothers and nieces.  A Victorian biography quotes an affectionate letter written in later life to an unnamed niece, possibly the one in the painting:

“A pretty little Robin is in the Minster. And sometimes – often indeed – when the Choir is in full chorus, it joins its little voice and ‘o’ertops them all’”

This painting is often subtitled “Mary Ann Purdon, the artist’s niece”. Mary Ann was in fact, Etty’s great-niece, as she was the grand-daughter of his brother, John .

John’s daughter, Catharine Etty married Robert Purdon at All Saints Pavement, York, in 1825. Mary Ann was born in Hull in 1832 – she had one older brother, Charles. Robert Purdon, was on the 1841 census as “clerk”.

Victorians believed “The devil makes work for idle hands” and so manuals on virtue were published alongside the first crochet books. One title advertised alongside various Crochet and Knitting manuals in the 1840s, was the  ‘Guide to Female Happiness Through the Paths of Virtue’.

“Domestic amusement” – like crochet – was the way to avoid being sinful. ‘Mrs Griffiths’ in a foreword to ‘The Winchester fancy needlework instructor’ of 1847, said that at least needlewomen  can “..feel the satisfaction of knowing that we are…innocently employed”.

In ‘The Ladies’ Handbook of Knitting, Netting and Crochet, (1843), the writer stresses that crochet was a fairly recent trend:

“Crochet work has long been known, but it has only become a favourite with the fair votaries of the needle during the last few years.”

The Handbook stated that crochet was suited to shawls, table covers, pillows, mats,  slippers, carriage mats, “and a great variety of other things of elegance and utility”. The Victorian female ideal combined usefulness with beauty.

Crochet was possibly seen as more refined than knitting. Down the road from Mary Ann Purdon, working class women were busy knitting stockings and Humber fishermen’s ganseys for their families and maybe for sale. Crochet on the other hand, was seen as delicate and refined, and suited to the middle class lady who could spend her time usefully on “D’Oyleys” carriage mats or slippers.

The writer, “Mrs Savage” suggested using “an ivory hook is most desirable. It is so light in use and becomes, in use, so glassy smooth, that it greatly facilitates the operation”. For the finest of work she preferred a steel hook.

Mary Ann is using white yarn, probably linen or silk and maybe an ivory or bone hook. These can still be got for bargain prices at vintage fairs. When it came to selecting just the right silk for a project, the 1843 author advised “No young lady should trust, at first, to her own judgement…but a little attention will soon render her a proficient in the art of choosing the most profitable materials….

Etty died in 1849, when Mary Ann would have been only 17.

In the Morning Post, May 13th, 1850, I found a poignant list of the items for sale from Etty’s studio, after he died.  Amongst the works was ‘The Crochet Worker’, on sale for £48 and 6 shillings. It was listed under ‘Unfinished Paintings’ which suggests it really was one of his last works. And one of the most domestic and endearing. Only three years later, it was for sale again in the sale of “A series of Capital English Pictures”.  This time, it went for ninety guineas, doubling its price.

Mary Ann, and both her parents and brother, vanish from the censuses and eluded look ups in the marriage and death records. They are lost to us, for now, at least. She never owned the painting of herself. Looking down at her work, Mary Ann remains enigmatic. But this Hull lass must be one of the earliest English crochet workers recorded for posterity, at the height of the crochet craze.

I wonder if she’d agree with “E.L”, writing the preface to ‘The Royal magazine of Knitting, Netting and Crochet’,  in 1848,  who said, grandly:

What an allegory of human life is Crochet!

First published in Love:Crochet


One reply on ““Ladies Made Happy!””

And Ruskin encouraged the linen industry in the Lake District, resulting in the technique known as Ruskin lace. Brentwood has some beautiful examples.


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