Work For Idle Hands

Coming up to the final stretch, so to speak, writing the next book – which is going to be about the darker side of textile history.  At the moment, I have pieces coming out about the early writers of knitting manuals, which is slightly more cheerful territory. But I’m currently researching something much darker and so thought I’d share this snippet (image from a later period, but it gives you the gist).


Pre-Victorian, but full of the later nineteenth century belief that “the devil makes work for idle hands”, etc.  Whilst men were used in chain gangs, stone-breaking or road improving, or oakum picking (recycling tarry rope fibres); women were put to the task of sewing endless linen shirts, knitting stockings, or spinning line (flax).   Which shows you how soul-destroyingly boring they thought these tasks to be.  And also, how “improving” or “character building”.


From “The Morning Post”, (London), Monday, August 11th, 1817;

The system adopted by MRS FRY and the association which she has formed for reclaiming and improving the condition of the female prisoners of Newgate, has been eminently succesful. Within a period of little more than three months the women and girls have made nearly 4000 shirts, &c. They have knitted 220 pairs of socks and stockings, and have lately commenced the spinning of flax. The amelioration in their morals has kept pace with their progress in the habits of industry…

Almost twenty years on, Dickens was to describe a visit to Newgate in ‘Sketches By Boz’ (1836). He mentioned a piece of ‘pasteboard’ (cardboard) with quotes from the scriptures, propped against a wall in the dining hall.  Moral improvement seemed the aim.

He watched some of the women at lunch,  noting that one or two of them immediately picked up and resumed “needlework” after eating.  Dickens contrasted the women’s side of the prison where women seemed to be working, and purposeful – to the men’s where they “sauntered” around looking bored. So it seems Elizabeth Fry’s influence could still be felt twenty or more years on.

Check out The Knitter, Issue 129, for my latest piece on knitting history.  There are some more bits of knitting history coming up in ‘The Knitter’ so stay tuned – and I’m currently working on a very exciting bit of research on a Very Famous Incident, for a U.S. magazine – details next year, when it’s out.

1862. Female convicts at work in Brixton prison. By Mayhew & Binny. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

3 replies on “Work For Idle Hands”

It amazes me how complicated it would have been to clothe all those female prisoners the same way, even to the ruffled bonnets. I always thought they were imprisoned in their own clothes, whatever they happened to have on when they were arrested.
And it seems that the supervisors were basically imprisoned too.
Very interesting!


The image reminds me of a scene in a Gerald Morris book in the Squire’s Tale series — wish I could remember which one! One particularly nasty local lord required a region to pay him tribute in women who could do needlework. He kept them in his manor house, locked up, requiring them to work and barely giving them subsistence in return. They had no clue their lace was famous throughout the whole land.

And yes, a book link would be lovely!


I missed that you have a book out? a link in a side bar would be nice.
I was reflecting on the prison sewing, and thinking that most women would be expected to fill their hours with sewing anyway, so it may not be so very different to real life; could that continuity be anything to do with a lower rate of recidivism? [which I presume is what is meant by the amelioration of morals]


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