Their Darkest Materials

The Small Woman – nineteenth century needlewomen

International Women’s Day, so here’s a quick post about the nineteenth century needlewoman and how she lived, and created her art, or was prevented from creating her art, plying the needle. More on this can be found in Chapter 4 of my new book, ‘Their Darkest Materials’, “The Small Woman – the Nineteenth Century Needlewoman” which you can get here in physical or pdf form:

An extract from ‘The Small Woman’, discussing the Bronte sisters:

In London, Charlotte felt parochial and worried her Yorkshire-made clothes were unfashionable. She had some clothing made professionally for her in Halifax , and during her time in Belgium, in Brussels. But most of the clothing, most of the time, worn by the Bronte sisters, will have been home-made… Although their brother Branwell and father Patrick will have worn shirts made at home, it’s likely the vast majority of their clothing as the men in the family and the family’s public face, would have been made by a tailor… needlewomen faced the reality, constantly, that the men of the household were public-facing, and they, in their homemade clothes, were a family’s engine-room…

Needlework was the epitome of femininity, wifeliness – and patience. The woman sewing (in literature), did needlework to fill the longeurs between husbandly or fatherly presences; sewing – and later in the century, knitting, netting, tatting and crochet became activities that happened in the narrow interstices between masculine lives…

Graphic of hands knitting from a knitting manual

This is a point rarely made by clothing historians – that even middle class women often wore homemade clothing, drafting in a mantua maker for special occasions maybe, but on the whole, might have made every stitch they wore. Yet men in the same households would wear homemade shirts – which were essentially underwear, as they rarely showed with waitcoats and long sleeved coats or jackets worn over them, whilst most of their outer – more visible – clothing would have been professionally made.

‘Their Darkest Materials’ goes into some famous literary knitters and sewists as well as looks at things like parliamentary commissions into the working conditions of women in clothing industries, from the hand-knitters who made fine shawls in Shetland, to the Midlands’ frame knitters, to the children who made hand cards for wool production, or made buttons; Paisley weavers of fine shawls and the workers of Barnard Castle’s carpetmaking industry.

But this aspect interested me greatly – the idea of nineteenth century women being absent in their own putative literary lives, in order to facilitate the public face of a brother, father or husband. The mundane task of sewing acres of linen, making children’s clothes, knitting stockings continually, eating away into their intellectual lives.


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