“Light or fancy needlework often forms a portion of the evening’s recreation for the ladies of the household…” — Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861.
During the 19th century, women were rarely idle in their spare moments. Many preferred instead to occupy themselves with a bit of sewing. This sewing generally fell into two broad categories: plain work and fancy work. Plain work was used to make or mend simple articles of clothing., while fancy work—which included knitting, crochet, and embroidery—was used in a more decorative sense. A young lady skilled at both plain and fancy work could not only repair her current clothing, she could design and sew stylish new pieces to supplement her wardrobe. As an 1873 issue of Harper’s Bazaar explains:
“…we have met with cases where the frivolity of fancy-work has been turned to excellent profit, where young ladies who had learned its arts in their idle moments practiced it to provide themselves with the wardrobe that their restricted purses could never buy.”
Lady’s magazines of the day featured countless patterns for everything from knitted reticules and petticoats to crocheted corsets and garters. Patterns for baby clothes were also popular, as were patterns for home goods such as doilies, antimacassars, and accessories for pets. The end results of sewing these patterns could provide a lady with much needed clothing and household items for herself and her family. Or, if she was entrepreneurial, it could provide her with a steady income. Harper’s Bazaar reports:
“We have known of a still more striking case where a widow has paid off the mortgage on her city house, and supported herself and child for many years, almost altogether with her swift crochet needle.”
More than just a practical skill, in marriageable young women of the middle and upper classes, fancy work was considered to be an accomplishment. It was taught to young girls both at home and at school and, by the end of the century, was even being offered in women’s colleges. According to author Christine Bayles Kortsch in her 2009 book Dress Culture in Late Victorian Women’s Fiction:
“In the latter half of the century, women’s colleges and art schools offered professional instruction in fancy work, particularly embroidery.”
Once wed, the sewing skills learned by middle and upper class girls did not fall by the wayside. Newly married ladies continued to apply themselves to fancy work or to sewing clothes for the poor. As for plain work, this usually became the province of the lady’s maid. In Isabella Beeton’s 1861 Book of Household Management, for example, she writes:
“Plain work will probably be one of the lady’s-maid’s chief employments."
For poorer girls, sewing was taught at various working-class day schools, often at the expense of skills such as writing and arithmetic. The reasoning behind this is best expressed in the following words from the Bampton National School, as quoted by Kortsch:
“Needlework, Knitting, &c. will form part of their constant employment for the purpose of training them up in habits of useful industry, and contributing to the support of the School.”
The invention of the sewing machine in the mid-19th century did little to improve the lot of poor working seamstresses. Instead, it led to mass production of clothing in factories where the working conditions were often quite grim—and sometimes even fatal. In his 2001 book Twelve Inventions Which Changed America, author Gerhard Falk goes so far as to claim that, for the poor:
“…the sewing machine became a new taskmaster, a slave driver, and an instrument of degradation, misery, and desperation.”
For those middle and upper class ladies at home, however, the sewing machine was a useful tool. Able to make 250 stitches per minute in its earliest incarnation, it greatly sped up the process of sewing straight seams and was—as author Ella Rodman Church states in her 1882 book The Home Needle—a “valuable aid in lightening the sewing of a household.” Even so, Church goes on to advise that the sewing machine is no replacement for plain and fancy work, writing:
“…[It] is mechanical in its execution, and done according to rules that have little connection with needle-work.”
Despite many modern advances, plain and fancy work—of the sort so popular in the Victorian era—are still around today. Countless women all over the world spend their free moments on knitting, crochet, or embroidery. Not because it makes them more marriageable and not because it is a necessary life skill, but because they enjoy it. To be fair, I believe there were many who enjoyed it in the 19th century as well, however, I must say that I am quite thankful that it is no longer a prerequisite to being considered an accomplished lady.
Top image: Portraits in the Countryside by Gustave Caillebotte, 1876
This post originally appeared on MimiMatthews.com and is reprinted here with permission.
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Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries and A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty. Her articles on nineteenth-century history have been published on various academic and history sites, including the Victorian Web and the Journal of Victorian Culture. When not writing historical non-fiction, Mimi authors exquisitely proper historical romance novels. Her latest Victorian romance The Matrimonial Advertisement can be ordered at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. To learn more, please visit www.MimiMatthews.com.