Monday, 14 September 2009

Jane Austen's Sewing Box

Jane Austen's Sewing Box by Jennifer Forest

Jane Austen's Sewing Box explores the Regency Period crafts mentioned in the novels of Jane Austen. Craft work was integral to women's lives at the time, and so is referred to frequently in all of her writing. A knowledgeable yet entertaining introduction explains the perception of women and their role in society of the time. The sewing of clothes and manchester for themselves, male relatives and impoverished neighbours was known as 'women's work', and every respectable woman was to be seen with a work basket prominently placed in the home. 'Fancy work', as decorative embroidery was then known, was an acceptable activity to perform in front of guests, and allowed a woman to show off her skill and wealth - having the leisure time to work on unnecessary items was a sign of status in society. There is also a section on materials used at the time and how they were made, which is indispensible for anyone wishing to make truly authentic period pieces.

There are 18 projects, covering sewing, knitting, netting, glass painting, and papercraft, all of which are based on actual craft projects or handmade items mentioned in Jane Austen's novels. An introduction to each one, with quotes from Austen's writing, explains the item's context in womens' daily life. The projects are rated Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced, and those that contain mixed crafts (e.g. sewing and embroidery) are specified. Some projects, such as the Cravat or Muff, are not very practical and would appeal more to an enthusiast of the period. Others, like the Embroidered Work Bag or the Huswife (a pouch for keeping sewing tools in) would be very handy even today.

The first thing that struck me about this book was how beautifully designed it was. Period wallpaper and fabric designs border every page. The liberal full-page close-up photographs of furniture details and luscious coloured fashion plates could be construed as filler, but to me it had the effect of immersing me in the aesthetic of the time.

The second thing that struck me was the vagueness of the instructions. They're accompanied by hand-drawn diagrams, but not every step is illustrated. There are very few templates; instead we are told to cut a rectangle with an oval at the top 10cm high, for example. Personally, if I had to hand-draw that myself, it would look rather wonky. Some of the embroidery patterns require enlarging on a photocopier, whereas they would have easily fitted into the book at life size. To me, this detracts from the authentic historical feel of the creative process.

Despite the fact that some projects are labelled Beginner, I would not feel confident at all following the instructions if I had never tried that craft before. I have never done netting for example, and even though there are diagrams, I found myself at a loss. Perhaps it's a case where it would all fit together once I started, but I don't like working that way. By and large, the finished projects are photographed with either artistic blurring or from an odd angle or both, which make them of no use for the struggling crafter needing a visual reference. There are also a few errors - in Paper Flowers, for example, the materials list includes ribbon, which is not actually used in the construction.

Regardless of these flaws, I found Jane Austen's Sewing Box a delight. The mixture of history lesson and literature appreciation is highly readable, and I'm very enthusiastic about trying some of the projects, even if they do need a bit of nutting out. The Carpetwork Cushion (aka Tapestry work or Needlepoint) caught my eye in particular, and I think I need about 10 Huswives. I have a sudden urge for everything in my life to be floral.

I wonder what Boy thinks of that?

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