Jane Austen was both an accomplished novelist and expert seamstress. She mentions household sewing as well as trimming and retrimming her hats, bonnets and gowns several times throughout her letters. Many of her pieces of fine work survive and can be seen in the displays at her home, Chawton Cottage, in Hampshire. Among these are a white indian muslin tucker, a white embroidered lawn handkerchief and a patchwork quilt which was made by herself, her sister, Cassandra, and her mother in the early part of the nineteenth century.
In May 1811, Jane asked her sister Cassandra, “have you remembered to collect pieces for the Patchwork? — we are now at a standstill.” When viewing this quilt, now displayed on a period bed in Chawton, it is easy to see why the Austen’s needed more fabric! This quilt uses 64 different patterns over its several hundred diamond shaped squares. It is amazing to think of the Austen ladies bent over their needles sewing every stitch by hand! The pattern used by the Austens is called an English medallion, that is, “a quilt with a central motif, surrounded by multiple Borders. The center is often a large square on point.”
The Austen quilt is made up of a variety of Chintz (printed or painted cotton fabric) fabrics, each one specially cut to show off the pattern to it’s best ability. Chintz fabric were first imported from India in the 1600’s. While early prints were based on fashionable Indian patterns, though they were later designed after English floral prints in order to appeal to the wider European market.
English wool and silk manufacturers, concerned about the grwoing popularity of these imports, soon used their influence to enforce a ban on the importation and production of printed cotton fabrics in England as well as her colonies. Eventually techniques were developed to allow British textile manufacturers to create their own chintz like patterns. In an attempt to keep the technology a secret, skilled workers were not allowed to emmigrate from the country. Many did manage to leave, however, and soon, production was in full swing in the American colonies, as well.
Still the fabric was quite expensive and women might only be able to afford a yard or two of a favorite print. In order to extend the fabric over a greater area, it was often cut into pieces and featured in a quilt. The basket of flowers centered in the Austen’s quilt is a prime example of this technique. These finished quilts were sometimes called “one-yard quilts”.
Often the other fabrics used came from the scrap pile or worn out clothing that was no longer needed by the family. It is fun to imagine where each of the prints used by the Austens originated.
A few years ago, Austen lover and quilt enthusiast Rosalee Clark decided to try her hand at replicating Jane Austen’s quilt. After some intensive background work done by her engineer husband, she came up with a pattern and instructions for a quilt very similar to that sewn by the Austen ladies. Visit her site on the Jane Austen Society of Australia’s page for photos of her quilt and a pattern to use in creating your own Regency Quilt.
Some historical information provided by Womenfolk.com
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