During the Regency era there were any number of ways to embellish a gown, from printing or painting directly on the fabric, to adding lace and other accents, or even embroidery. One method of embroidery, Tambour Work, was especially popular for it’s ease of application. Tambour is French for drum, and refers to the method of creating the embroidery.
Tambour work was at least as popular as embroidery and was faster to produce. The fabric to be worked was stretched on a large frame held on a stand, and the lady used a hook like a tiny, sharp crochet hook to punch through the fabric and create a chain stitch. The result is almost indistinguishable from embroidered chain stitch except that it is so very fine and even, and the work goes more quickly. Tambour work is still used on couture clothing today.
Fine muslins were perfect for tambouring because the loose weave was easy to punch through without damaging. Most work of the era was white-on-white; subtle, but the translucency of the muslin contrasted with the opacity of the tambouring. In addition to tambouring their dresses, fine ladies tamboured fichus (neckcloths), shawls (not very warm, but pretty), reticules, and more.
By the 1830’s, machines had been created which could produce tambour work fabric 140 times faster than the average seamstress. Professional tambour artists were out of a job, and the ladies of leisure soon found other hand crafts to occupy their time and talents. Victorian tastes drifted away from the delicate details of the previous era and the art was virtually forgotten for a time.
“It is amazing to me,” said Bingley, “how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are….They all paint tables, cover skreens, and net purses. I scarcely know any one who cannot do all this, and I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished.”
-Pride and Prejudice
In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bingley notes “netting”as one of the common accomplishments of young ladies. It is, as Isabella Beeton, Victorian Household Maven, explains, “one of the prettiest and one of the easiest accomplishments of a lady. The materials are simple, while the effects produced by good netting are most elegant and of great durability. One great advantage of netting is that each stitch is finished and independent of the next, so that if an accident happens to one stitch it does not, as in crochet or knitting, spoil the whole work.” The following instructions are from Beeton’s Book of Needlwork, published in 1870.
The wedding was very much like other weddings, where the parties have no taste for finery or parade; and Mrs. Elton, from the particulars detailed by her husband, thought it all extremely shabby, and very inferior to her own. “Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business! Selina would stare when she heard of it.” But, in spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.
Jane Austen fans are familiar with the high-waisted muslin dresses popular during her adulthood. How many are aware that machine-made net or gauze became a “hot” item from 1810 and on?
“Net dresses were very fashionable and their popularity was spurred by new inventions. The development of machine-made net in the late 18th and early 19th centuries meant that gauzy lace effects were increasingly affordable either as trimmings or garments. The bobbin-net machine was patented by the Englishman John Heathcoat in 1808 and produced a superior net identical to the twist-net grounds of hand-made bobbin lace. It was so successful that women in the highest ranks of society, including the Emperor Napoleon’s first wife, Josephine, wore machine-net dresses. Initially, however, all machine nets were plain and had to be embroidered by hand.” – Victoria and Albert
Machine-made bobbin net was first made in England in 1806 (and in France in 1818). Until this date, lace as it was made was known as old lace. After that date, lace is categorized as being modern.
Machine made lace made an appearance around 1760. The nets and tulles became immediately popular. Their arrival spurred the production of other silk lace cloths, which led to a general rise in popularity of the silk lace trade – until a machine was invented that could produce silk net lace as well.
In the 18th century the hand-made net was very expensive and was made of the finest thread from Antwerp: in 1790 this cost £70 per pound, sometimes more. At that time the mode of payment was decidedly primitive: the lace ground was spread out on the counter and the cottage worker covered it with shillings from the till of the shopman. As many coins as she could place on her work she took away with her as wages for her labour. It is no wonder that a Honiton lace veil before the invention of machine-made net often cost a hundred guineas. Heathcoat’s invention of a machine for making net dealt a crushing blow to the pillow-made net workers. The result is easily guessed. After suffering great depression for twenty years the art of hand-made net became nearly extinct, and when an order for a marriage veil of hand-made net was given, it was with the greatest difficulty that workers could be found to make it. The net alone for such a veil would cost £30. – A history of hand-made lace: Dealing with the origin of lace, the growth of the great lace centres, the mode of manufactures, the methods of distinguishing and the care of various kinds of lace, Emily Jackson, p. 170
The most popular European centers for lace making were located in France, the region known as Belgium today, Ireland, England,and Italy.
During the French Revolution the French textile industry had suffered and unlike in England, use of textile machinery had been non-existent. Emperor Napoleon stopped the import of English textiles and he revived the Valenciennes lace industry so that fine fabrics like tulle and batiste could be made there. – Regency Fashion History
Between 1806-1810, net gowns embroidered with chenille embroidery became popular. Profits rose for the manufacturers as the price for the cloth plummeted.
In 1809 Heathcoat took a patent for his bobbin net machine. But the profits realised by the manufacturers of lace were very great, and the use of the machines rapidly extended; while the price of the article was reduced from five pounds the square yard to about five pence in the course of twenty-five years. – John Heathcoat and the Bobbin Net Machine, Samuel Smiles (1859)
By 1813, the bobbinet machine had been perfected. After 1815, gauze was used over satin evening dresses, with the fabric gathered at the back. By 1816, crepe, net and tulle were worn over evening wear made of satin, silks, velvets, kerseymere, satin, lame, and both plain and shot sarcenet.
Hon. Lady Codrington.—Net draperies, magnificently embroidered in gold lama, in bouquets and sprigs, over a petticoat of white satin, with blond lace at the bottom, headed with a rouleau of gold lama; train of crimson velvet, trimmed with gold lama and blond lace. Head-dress gold lama toque, with ostrich plume, and diamonds.
Not every lady of that era was obsessed over bobbin net lace or tulle. Many began to publicly and proudly favor the old hand made lace.
…both in England and on the Continent and at Almack’s, the Assembly Rooms at Bath and Tunbridge Well, the chaperons would gossip of their lappets of Alencon or Brussels. Numerous were the anecdotes as to how this treasure or that had turned up having escaped the doom the rag-bag, which alas! was the fate of so much old lace during the muslin and net period. – Emily Jackson, A History of Hand-made Lace, 1900, p 48.
Machine made lace dealt a great blow to the industry of hand-made fabrics. In Tiverton in 1822, where once 2,400 lace makers worked, only 300 lace makers were still employed.
The Duchess of Gloucester was one of the few whose affections never swerved from her love of the old rich points towards blondes and muslins, and her collection was one of the finest in Europe. Lady Blessington, too, loved costly lace, and, at her death, left several huge chests full of it. Gradually lace began to be worn again, but it was as it were ignorantly put on, worn simply because it was again the fashion to wear lace, and lace must therefore be worn; the knowledge of its history, worth, and beauty was lacking… – Emily Jackson, A History of Hand-made Lace, 1900, p 48.
Sprigs beautified the machine-made net. It is said that Queen Charlotte introduced applique on net to support the machine net industry. Honiton appliques consisted of white linen thread sprigs mounted on the net, but black silk sprigs were applied as well. The black silk cost twice as much as the linen threads and soon went out of fashion.
Vic Sanborn oversees two blogs: Jane Austen’s World and Jane Austen Today. Before 2006 she merely adored Jane Austen and read Pride and Prejudice faithfully every year. These days, she is immersed in reading and writing about the author’s life and the Regency era. Co-founder of her local (and very small) book group, Janeites on the James, she began her blogs as a way to share her research on the Regency era for her novel, which sits unpublished on a dusty shelf. In her working life, Vic provides resources and professional development for teachers and administrators of Virginia’s adult education and literacy programs. This article was written for Jane Austen’s World and is used here with permission.
John Heathcoat was the youngest son of a respectable small farmer at Duffield, Derbyshire, where he was born in 1732. When at school he made steady and rapid progress, but was early removed from it to be apprenticed to a frame-smith near Loughborough. The boy soon learnt to handle tools with dexterity, and he acquired a minute knowledge of the parts of which the stocking-frame was composed, as well as of the more intricate warp-machine. At his leisure he studied how to introduce improvements in them, and his friend, Mr. Bazley, M.P., states that as early as the age of sixteen, he conceived the idea of inventing a machine by which lace might be made similar to Buckingham or French lace, then all made by hand.
The first practical improvement he succeeded in introducing was in the warp-frame, when, by means of an ingenious apparatus, he succeeded in producing “mitts” of a lacy appearance, and it was this success which determined him to pursue the study of mechanical lace-making. The stocking-frame had already, in a modified form, been applied to the manufacture of point-net lace, in which the mesh was LOOPED as in a stocking, but the work was slight and frail, and therefore unsatisfactory. Many ingenious Nottingham mechanics had, during a long succession of years, been labouring at the problem of inventing a machine by which the mesh of threads should be TWISTED round each other on the formation of the net.
Some of these men died in poverty, some were driven insane, and all alike failed in the object of their search. The old warp-machine held its ground.
When a little over twenty-one years of age, Heathcoat went to Nottingham, where he readily found employment, for which he soon received the highest remuneration, as a setter-up of hosiery and warp-frames, and was much respected for his talent for invention, general intelligence, and the sound and sober principles that governed his conduct. He also continued to pursue the subject on which his mind had before been occupied, and laboured to compass the contrivance of a twist traverse-net machine.
He first studied the art of making the Buckingham or pillow-lace by hand, with the object of effecting the same motions by mechanical means. It was a long and laborious task, requiring the exercise of great perseverance and ingenuity. His master, Elliot, described him at that time as inventive, patient, self-denying, and taciturn, undaunted by failures and mistakes, full of resources and expedients, and entertaining the most perfect confidence that his application of mechanical principles would eventually be crowned with success.
It is difficult to describe in words an invention so complicated as the bobbin-net machine. It was, indeed, a mechanical pillow for making lace, imitating in an ingenious manner the motions of the lace-maker’s fingers in intersecting or tying the meshes of the lace upon her pillow. On analysing the component parts of a piece of hand-made lace, Heathcoat was enabled to classify the threads into longitudinal and diagonal. He began his experiments by fixing common pack-threads lengthwise on a sort of frame for the warp, and then passing the weft threads between them by common plyers, delivering them to other plyers on the opposite side; then, after giving them a sideways motion and twist, the threads were repassed back between the next adjoining cords, the meshes being thus tied in the same way as upon pillows by hand. He had then to contrive a mechanism that should accomplish all these nice and delicate movements, and to do this cost him no small amount of mental toil.
Long after he said, “The single difficulty of getting the diagonal threads to twist in the allotted space was so great that if it had now to be done, I should probably not attempt its accomplishment.” His next step was to provide thin metallic discs, to be used as bobbins for conducting the threads backwards and forwards through the warp. These discs, being arranged in carrier-frames placed on each side of the warp, were moved by suitable machinery so as to conduct the threads from side to side in forming the lace. He eventually succeeded in working out his principle with extraordinary skill and success; and, at the age of twenty-four, he was enabled to secure his invention by a patent.
During this time his wife was kept in almost as great anxiety as himself, for she well knew of his trials and difficulties while he was striving to perfect his invention. Many years after they had been successfully overcome, the conversation which took place one eventful evening was vividly remembered. “Well,” said the anxious wife, “will it work?” “No,” was the sad answer; “I have had to take it all to pieces again.” Though he could still speak hopefully and cheerfully, his poor wife could restrain her feelings no longer, but sat down and cried bitterly. She had, however, only a few more weeks to wait, for success long laboured for and richly deserved, came at last, and a proud and happy man was John Heathcoat when he brought home the first narrow strip of bobbin-net made by his machine, and placed it in the hands of his wife.
As in the case of nearly all inventions which have proved productive, Heathcoat’s rights as a patentee were disputed, and his claims as an inventor called in question. On the supposed invalidity of the patent, the lace-makers boldly adopted the bobbin-net machine, and set the inventor at defiance. But other patents were taken out for alleged improvements and adaptations; and it was only when these new patentees fell out and went to law with each other that Heathcoat’s rights became established. One lace-manufacturer having brought an action against another for an alleged infringement of his patent, the jury brought in a verdict for the defendant, in which the judge concurred, on the ground that BOTH the machines in question were infringements of Heathcoat’s patent.
It was on the occasion of this trial, “Boville v. Moore,” that Sir John Copley (afterwards Lord Lyndhurst), who was retained for the defence in the interest of Mr. Heathcoat, learnt to work the bobbin-net machine in order that he might master the details of the invention. On reading over his brief, he confessed that he did not quite understand the merits of the case; but as it seemed to him to be one of great importance, he offered to go down into the country forthwith and study the machine until he understood it; “and then,” said he, “I will defend you to the best of my ability.” He accordingly put himself into that night’s mail, and went down to Nottingham to get up his case as perhaps counsel never got it up before. Next morning the learned sergeant placed himself in a lace-loom, and he did not leave it until he could deftly make a piece of bobbin-net with his own hands, and thoroughly understood the principle as well as the details of the machine. When the case came on for trial, the learned sergeant was enabled to work the model on the table with such case and skill, and to explain the precise nature of the invention with such felicitous clearness, as to astonish alike judge, jury, and spectators; and the thorough conscientiousness and mastery with which he handled the case had no doubt its influence upon the decision of the court.
After the trial was over, Mr. Heathcoat, on inquiry, found about six hundred machines at work after his patent, and he proceeded to levy royalty upon the owners of them, which amounted to a large sum. But the profits realised by the manufacturers of lace were very great, and the use of the machines rapidly extended; while the price of the article was reduced from five pounds the square yard to about five pence in the course of twenty-five years. During the same period the average annual returns of the lace-trade have been at least four millions sterling, and it gives remunerative employment to about 150,000 workpeople.
To return to the personal history of Mr. Heathcoat. In 1809 we find him established as a lace-manufacturer at Loughborough, in Leicestershire. There he carried on a prosperous business for several years, giving employment to a large number of operatives, at wages varying from £5. to £10. a week. Notwithstanding the great increase in the number of hands employed in lace-making through the introduction of the new machines, it began to be whispered about among the workpeople that they were superseding labour, and an extensive conspiracy was formed for the purpose of destroying them wherever found. . . .
Among the numerous manufacturers whose works were attacked by the Luddites, was the inventor of the bobbin-net machine himself. One bright sunny day, in the summer of , a body of rioters entered his factory at Loughborough with torches, and set fire to it, destroying thirty-seven lace-machines, and above £10,000 worth of property. Ten of the men were apprehended for the felony, and eight of them were executed. Mr. Heathcoat made a claim upon the county for compensation, and it was resisted; but the Court of Queen’s Bench decided in his favour, and decreed that the county must make good his loss of £10,000. The magistrates sought to couple with the payment of the damage the condition that Mr. Heathcoat should expend the money in the county of Leicester; but to this he would not assent, having already resolved on removing his manufacture elsewhere.
At Tiverton, in Devonshire, he found a large building which had been formerly used as a woollen manufactory; but the Tiverton cloth trade having fallen into decay, the building remained unoccupied, and the town itself was generally in a very poverty-stricken condition. Mr. Heathcoat bought the old mill, renovated and enlarged it, and there recommenced the manufacture of lace upon a larger scale than before; keeping in full work as many as three hundred machines, and employing a large number of artisans at good wages. Not only did he carry on the manufacture of lace, but the various branches of business connected with it — yarn-doubling, silk-spinning, net-making, and finishing.
He also established at Tiverton an iron-foundry and works for the manufacture of agricultural implements, which proved of great convenience to the district. It was a favourite idea of his that steam power was capable of being applied to perform all the heavy drudgery of life, and he laboured for a long time at the invention of a steam-plough. In 1832 he so far completed his invention as to be enabled to take out a patent for it; and Heathcoat’s steam- plough, though it has since been superseded by Fowler’s, was considered the best machine of the kind that had up to that time been invented.
Mr. Heathcoat was a man of great natural gifts. He possessed a sound understanding, quick perception, and a genius for business of the highest order. With these he combined uprightness, honesty, and integrity — qualities which are the true glory of human character. Himself a diligent self-educator, he gave ready encouragement to deserving youths in his employment, stimulating their talents and fostering their energies. During his own busy life, he contrived to save time to master French and Italian, of which he acquired an accurate and grammatical knowledge. His mind was largely stored with the results of a careful study of the best literature, and there were few subjects on which he had not formed for himself shrewd and accurate views. The two thousand workpeople in his employment regarded him almost as a father, and he carefully provided for their comfort and improvement. Prosperity did not spoil him, as it does so many; nor close his heart against the claims of the poor and struggling, who were always sure of his sympathy and help. To provide for the education of the children of his workpeople, he built schools for them at a cost of about £6,000.
He was also a man of singularly cheerful and buoyant disposition, a favourite with men of all classes and most admired and beloved by those who knew him best.
In the electors of Tiverton, of which town Mr. Heathcoat had proved himself so genuine a benefactor, returned him to represent them in Parliament, and he continued their member for nearly thirty years. During a great part of that time he had Lord Palmerston for his colleague, and the noble lord, on more than one public occasion, expressed the high regard which he entertained for his venerable friend. On retiring from the representation in , owing to advancing age and increasing infirmities, thirteen hundred of his workmen presented him with a silver inkstand and gold pen, in token of their esteem. He enjoyed his leisure for only two more years, dying in January, 1861, at the age of seventy-seven, and leaving behind him a character for probity, virtue, manliness, and mechanical genius, of which his descendants may well be proud.
Samuel Smiles (1812-1904) was a Scot who originally trained as a doctor before turning to journalism fulltime. Smiles wrote for a popular audience to show people how best to take advantage of the changes being brought about by the industrial revolution which was sweeping Britain and other parts of the world in the first half of the 19th century. In his best known work, Self Help; with Illustrations of Character and Conduct (1859) he combines Victorian morality with sound free market ideas into moral tales showing the benefits of thrift, hard work, education, perseverance, and a sound moral character. He drew upon the personal success stories of the emerging self-made millionaires in the pottery industry (Josiah Wedgwood), the railway industry (Watt and Stephenson), and the weaving industry (Jacquard) to make his point that the benefits of the market were open to anyone.