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Converging Lines: Needlework in English Literature and Visual Arts
I/ Victorian Threads

[T]hat pincushion made of crimson satin:”1 Embroidery, Discourse and Memory in Victorian Literature and Culture



Cet article vise à explorer le sens de la broderie dans le foyer victorien, en s’appuyant sur des sources littéraires, des essais, des magazines féminins, des tableaux, et les objets brodés eux-mêmes. La broderie victorienne est parfois difficile d’accès pour le spectateur contemporain. Si elle était perçue comme un art ancien et prestigieux, les personnes qui la pratiquaient utilisaient sans sourciller des expédients, des matériaux produits en masse ainsi que des modèles publiés à grande échelle afin de parvenir à des résultats rapides.
À travers ces textiles semble se dessiner une réflexion sur le temps. En permettant aux femmes de la bourgeoisie de participer aux modes de production modernes tout en s’imaginant dans la lignée des aristocrates du passé, la broderie mettait en scène une tension entre historicité et modernité. De plus, en court-circuitant le texte imprimé qui dominait à l’époque, il donnait aux femmes un espace d’expression alternatif, au sein duquel elles pouvaient tisser leur propre histoire. En ce sens, les objets brodés sont des objets discursifs à part entière, qui laissent des souvenirs matériels de l’histoire des femmes. Enfin, parce qu’ils sont intimement liés aux corps et aux âmes des femmes qui les ont fabriqués, ces objets agissent comme des souvenirs, des réceptacles de mémoire qui nous lèguent, selon l’expression de Susan Stewart, « un récit d’intériorité et d’authenticité. »

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  • 1 Charlotte Brontë, Villette. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2000 [1853].

1Like many Victorian novels, Charlotte Brontë’s Villette is full of references to needlework. Among these, particularly striking is the appearance of a certain pincushion. After falling ill and fainting in the street, Lucy Snowe wakes up to a strange room furnished with ghostly reminders of her past, many of them the results of women’s fancywork: “two little footstools with worked covers,” “a small ebony-framed chair, of which the seat and back were also worked with groups of brilliant flowers on a dark ground,” and, poignantly, a laboriously handmade pair of handscreens “with elaborate pencil drawings finished like line engravings.” (Brontë 168-169). It is, however, the pincushion that provides Lucy with the most startling reminder of the past:

Bretton! Bretton! and ten years ago shone reflected in that mirror. And why did Bretton and my fourteenth year haunt me thus? Why, if they came at all, did they not return complete? Why hovered before my distempered vision the mere furniture, while the rooms and the locality were gone? As to that pincushion made of crimson satin, ornamented with gold beads and frilled with thread-lace, I had the same right to know it as to know the screens – I had made it myself. Rising with a start from the bed, I took the cushion in my hand and examined it. There was the cipher “L. L. B.” formed in gold beads, and surrounded with an oval wreath embroidered in white silk. These were the initials of my godmother’s name – Louisa Lucy Bretton (171- 172).

2While she relies on the memory of other material objects in order to recover memories of her previous life (“the green chintz of that little chair,” “the smooth, milky-green of the china-vessels on the stand”) the pincushion is invested with particular potency because it encapsulates the definite proof of Lucy’s displacement: she awakens to find herself at home.

3The pincushion’s ability to conjure the past for Lucy seems to reside in the nature of handicraft itself. Needlework was deeply concerned with time: the passing of time of course, but also history, memory and inheritance. If Victorian needlewomen liked to imagine themselves as modern household managers producing fashionable and desirable items, they were also attuned to the historicity of needlework and their connection to previous generations of women plying the needle – a fact that Lucy is keenly aware of, when she poignantly imagines the laborious work of the handscreen maker:

these, my very eyes ached at beholding again, recalling hours when they had followed, stroke by stroke and touch by touch, a tedious, feeble, finical, schoolgirl pencil held in these fingers, now so skeleton-like. (169)

  • 3 In contrast, Lucy notes that her eyes might be failing her: “My eye […] blinked baffled;” “I had pa (...)

4The maker is dead but the screens live on. Because it is both made by hand and designed to aid the further making of textiles, the pincushion appears as the ideal repository for memory. Its potency is furthered by the fact that Lucy has made it herself, gauging the pattern with her eyes, holding the object in her hands and painstakingly working the beads, lace, and embroidery with her fingers. Like all handicrafts, it is an intrinsically tactile object, made with the hands of the maker and designed to be touched. Significantly, it is when she grasps the pincushion and examines and feels its markings and embellishments that Lucy is, once again, overridden with memories of Bretton: “Am I in England? Am I in Bretton?” (172) Where memory has failed Lucy, the pincushion is a tangible, readable object – quite literally so, in fact, because it is marked with the initials of its recipient as well as other designs (lace, embroidery and beading) which act as coded language. Memory is conjured by touch.3

5Spurred on by the example of Lucy Snowe’s mnemonic pincushion, this article explores various ways in which Victorian women’s needlework in general, and embroidery in particular, has acted as a space of reflection on time, history and memory. As historian Malea Powell explains:

History isn’t a dead and remembered object; it is alive and speaks to us. We are obligated not just to our ancestors, out of whose lives we ‘make’ that history but also to the places and spaces, and the living things therein who remember them and – through them – remember us (121).

6Here, I would like to investigate the ways in which textile crafts, as embodied forms of production, have allowed women to insert and imprint their contributions in history.

1. Fancywork, factory work: Victorian embroidery in context

  • 4 Of course, things were considerably more complex. Plain-sewing was the foundation of all needlework (...)

7If, historically, women had always plied the needle, the social and economic context of the 19th century set the stage for the spectacular expansion of decorative needlework, collectively known as fancywork. Victorian needlework can be broadly defined in two practices: plain work, which consisted in the making, hemming and mending of garments and household linen, and fancywork, which was decorative stitching such as embroidery. Needlework was directly linked to socio-economic position: in middle-class households, plain sewing was generally left to the servants, while the ladies of the house produced decorative needlework. In this sense, then, it was fancywork, rather than the production of utilitarian household items, that came to be intimately connected with the lived experiences and identities of middle-class women, and was, in turn, the object of delight or bitter resignation.4

8Fancywork reached the height of its popularity in the 19th century and became a craze in its own right in the years surrounding the coronation of Queen Victoria, herself a keen embroiderer. Instead of provoking a decline in needlework, the rapid industrialisation of Britain provided new outlets and possibilities for handicraft. The introduction of coloured, printed patterns as well as guidebooks and magazines communicating tips, techniques and new ideas drew a new generation of eager enthusiasts. Meanwhile, women’s periodicals began to publish fancy work patterns on a regular basis; because of the highly competitive market, many of these were short-lived, but some enjoyed a longer lifespan, including the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine (1852-90), edited by Samuel and Isabella Beeton, and the Queen (1861-1922). By then, “fancywork” had come to stand as a widely inclusive term, referring to any type of amateur craft performed by women in the home. The scope was huge, and practitioners used shells, feathers and hair along with the more traditional needle and thread. Nevertheless, embroidery persisted and remained popular.

Fig. 1: Berlin-wool work pattern, circa 1860 (private collection)

Fig. 2: Cross-stitch diagram. Reproduced from Beeton’s Needlework

9Two factors colluded to make handicraft unprecedentedly popular in the early years of the 19th century. First, the rapid industrialisation of Britain led to the geographic shift of middle-class housing from the city centres to the suburbs. Removed from the noise, smoke, grit and dirt of manufacturing towns, the Victorian home was recoded as a safe haven to which bourgeois men would retire after their day’s work. Far from the hustle and bustle of city life, deprived of remunerative employment, bourgeois women undertook domestic handicraft to fill the void of listless days, but also to fulfil their sacred duty of making the house a home. A second crucial factor in the popularisation of fancywork was the emergence of a culture of consumerism. As a result of mass-production, a great number of objects, materials and household items became cheaply and readily available for the first time in history. While one would naturally assume that this development would lead to the neglect of time-consuming handicrafts, in fact, the exact opposite happened. In the years following the industrial revolution, the increase in printing, and the commodification of society led to the flourishing of crafts. Weekly or monthly periodicals published instructions on how to make the latest coveted item. Volumes dedicated to general household information, such as Cassell’s Household Guide, Parlour Recreations for Ladies, The Work-Table Companion or Enquire Within Upon Everything contained chapters with suggestions for household decoration and crafts. The production of household goods by women had the dual purpose of showcasing the coziness of the parlour and the available leisure time to produce luxury wares.

10The ready availability of cheap, modern, functional haberdashery goods and patterns meant that, for the middle and upper classes, time could be spent in the production of fancywork. The production and display of domestic handicrafts in the parlour, then, participated in the growing commodity culture, and, in the middle-class home, the handmade object’s purpose was not so much to be useful in a material sense as to showcase the prosperity and domesticity of the home.

11From the 1830s to the 1880s, the most popular form of decorative needlework was Berlin wool work, also called worsted work or canvas work. Akin to embroidery in that it consisted in the creation of a motif with thread upon a canvas foundation, Berlin wool work brought ornamental needlework to a completely new level. While traditional embroidery involved working a design in thread on top of a plain silk, cotton or linen background, Berlin wool work relied on mass-printed grids, coarse canvas and colourful wool. Embroiderers were to purchase a picture, generally copied from a popular painting, which was divided into a grid, and transfer it onto a thick piece of canvas, using simple stitches and thick wool in order to go faster. Sometimes, the design was printed directly on the canvas, making transfer redundant. In other cases, designs were printed by machines on perforated paper: one had only to lay the paper on fabric and colour the design in with thread. Berlin wool work enjoyed such popularity that, by the mid-19th century, it had come to stand for embroidery as a whole.

12Because it relied on cheap wool, mass-produced grids and ease of production, Berlin wool work was a spectacularly democratic craft. It allowed Victorian women to churn out identical copies of mass-printed designs, and turn them into chair backs, slippers, cushions and so forth. Just like factory work, Berlin wool work was precise, reliable and fast, with predictable outcomes. In the 19th century, then, what had previously been a skilled craft undertaken by the aristocratic elite, came to be within the reach of middle-class women. Valuing quantity over quality, speed and modernity over tradition, uniform production over individuality, Berlin wool work positioned itself, not against, but alongside industrial production. The point was not to obtain a one-of-a-kind work of art; on the contrary, it was to obtain the exact replica of a coveted item that could be bought ready-made. Fancywork thus acted as an alternative mode of production, a metonymic female locus rivalling the larger space of industrial production identified as male. The most salient example of this alliance is, perhaps, the display of Berlin wool work artefacts, called “ornamental industry,” alongside steam-power looms, coal and bolts of cotton in the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Fig. 3: The Macaw, Lovebirds, Terrier and Spaniel Puppies Belonging to Her Majesty. Berlin wool work, 1840 (private collection)

13By imitating the speed, swiftness and precision of machines, Victorian women could insert themselves within the ethos of capitalist economy, albeit on a miniature scale. While the Victorian ideology of domesticity solidified the assignment of middle-class women to the home, fancywork allowed them to assert their own productivity, metaphorically bringing the factory into the parlour. Fancywork allowed women to participate in the modes of production that the British economy was based on while, at the same time, making objects that were more meaningful than generic factory-made products. It encapsulated the values of the Victorian bourgeoisie, while remaining affordable and accessible to most; it bridged the gap between the home and the factory.

2. The rhetorics of nostalgia

14Although Victorian fancyworkers allied themselves with the industrial ethos, the relationship between these two, parallel economies was not wholly uncomplicated. While they presented needlewomen with constantly updated patterns, stitches and short-cuts permitting women to produce more handicrafts at a faster rate, craft manuals also extolled the historical legacy of needlework – a reflection, perhaps, of Victorian anxieties about the rapidly increasing pace of life.

15In practice, the women who were making Berlin wool samplers, antimacassars, and the many other projects touted as quick and easy by craft manuals and magazines, cheerfully emulated the swiftness and efficiency of the machine. The craft ideal, however, sought to preserve the narrative of handicraft as an ancient and prestigious activity – something that was particularly true for embroidery, which, more than other handicrafts, had important historical resonances. Unsurprisingly, the rhetorics of needlework manuals were steeped in nostalgia; in 1839, for example, Sarah Ellis wrote “Time was when the women of England were accustomed, almost from their childhood, to the constant employment of their hands” (20). Like Ellis, the authors of the numerous needlework guides that flooded the market in the 1840s liked to envisage needlework as an age-old tradition inherited from woman to woman. While they knew they were addressing a readership of middle-class housewives hungry for new patterns and ideas, these authors were keen to stress the historical credentials of needlework, tracing its origins back to the Bible, the ancient world and the Middle-Ages.

16The aim of such narratives, I would argue, was to solidify Victorian women’s confidence in their craft practices: needlework manuals consolidated and extolled the managerial virtues of the modern, bourgeois housewife while, at the same time, allowing women to imagine themselves as following in the footsteps of Queen Matilda. In looking to the past and conferring aristocratic associations to needlework, these manuals granted the works of women the prestige and seriousness of history. Needlework guidebooks were sometimes edited by, or dedicated to, women of the aristocracy or members of the royal family. Again, this was not innocent: thanks to the imprimatur of titled women (who, presumably, would be performing some type of needlework themselves), craft manuals flatteringly aligned middle-class women with members of the aristocracy, perhaps even with the Queen herself. Where journalists, novelists or commentators could prove scathing towards women’s handicraft, needlework manuals reassured craftswomen in their endeavours by giving them permission to imagine themselves as part of a prestigious, historic, aristocratic practice. Needlework, they were told, was proper work.

  • 5 See, for example, Bowman.

17While they summoned the past – largely, perhaps, to justify the practice of ornamental needlework in the eyes of their readers – needlework manuals were also clearly positioned in the present. In order to survive and subsist, magazine writers constantly had to update their material in order to offer readers new, exciting patterns and ideas. If, when she picked up her needle, a Victorian woman could imagine herself as a maker akin to the embroiderers of yesteryear, it is also likely that she was conscious of her own contemporaneity. Significantly, the nostalgic tone of craft manuals is tempered by the language of modernity. In the preface to her Practical Companion to the Work-Table, for example, Elizabeth Jackson notes that the “Ladies of her Country” have been renowned, “from the earliest period, for their skill and ingenuity at the needle,” and that “their labours [...] have been recorded by the historian, and immortalised by the poet, in the most beautiful and touching strains” (4). Having acknowledged the weight of history in the development of needlework, she quickly asserts that, undoubtedly, “her fair countrywomen of the present day will soon rival, and even excel, in taste and beauty of design, the most renowned artiste of ancient times” (4). The reader is even given reassurance as to the level of skill required, should she feel intimidated: “What [the author] has attempted in the present volume, is to make the receipts practicable and easy even to a novice in the art” (4). Conveniently, Jackson offers the best of both worlds: needlework is an ancient and prestigious activity, but anyone can do it. Similar craft manuals were keen to stress the ease and accessibility of embroidery, and authors used the language of modern industry to justify the practice of fancywork, which was deemed “useful,” “profitable,” and “industrious.”5

18Yet while craft manuals adopted the language of modernity, trade and industrial economy, they did so with reservations. In her Art of Needlework, for example, Elizabeth Stone evocatively describes handicrafts as “those numberless pretty and not unuseful tokens of remembrance, which [...] soften our hearts [...]. Oh! a reticule, a purse, a slipper, how valueless soever in itself, is, when fraught with these home memories, worth that which the mines of Golconda could not produce” (318). Because they are both “valueless” (they cannot be sold) and imbued with extraordinary sentimental value which even “the mines of Golconda” cannot match, women’s handicrafts escape the dominant commodity culture: they can only exist as gifts, as mementoes of past economic behaviour circulated amongst intimate acquaintances rather than strangers. By staging craft practices on a complex tension between nostalgia and modernity, the rhetorics of craft manuals allowed Victorian women to participate in modern modes of production while remaining solidly allied to processes of the past. Because they suppressed the ubiquitous, interchangeable commodity in favour of the rare, individual souvenir, craft practices allowed makers to experience a sense of authenticity in their methods of production, ownership and exchange.

19The practice of handicraft permitted women to circumvent modern, industrial modes of production while remaining safely within the domestic sphere. The samplers, antimacassars and tapestry stools made by women acted as repositories of authenticity at a time of increasing speed, dematerialisation and separation from the spheres of production. However, unlike Marx’s worrying “spectre of Communism,” they did not threaten to overturn the existing system (2). In this sense, craft manuals developed ideas about time that were both contradictory and oddly satisfying: needlework, it was felt, fulfilled the imperatives of modernity while embodying tradition. Handicrafts provided tokens of remembrance, objects in which Victorian women could dream up an idealised vision of the past, at the precise moment where people were beginning to intuit the disappearance of the old world. More crucially, they provided spaces in which women could record embodied memories of themselves. Needlework permitted middle-class women to position themselves in history, without forfeiting their place in modernity. It was positioned – somewhat precariously – in a delicate balance between the “there and then” and the “here and now,” allowing women to develop a relation to their idea of the past while simultaneously solidifying their allegiance to a more modern understanding of objects. The role of handicrafts as memoranda was not only metaphorical, however; needlework, quite literally, provided women with the opportunity to leave a trace in history.

3. “Remember me”

20The necessity to record, mark and remember was invested with great urgency in the case of women who, unlike their male counterparts, had few opportunities to tell their stories. While much of women’s work – including handicrafts – was ephemeral, textile crafts outlived their makers. Victorian craft manuals, we have seen, allowed their readers to view themselves as living firmly in the present, while simultaneously stressing the historical legacy of needlework. Their rhetoric was not mere escapist nostalgia: they provided the answer to a real and tangible fear of disappearance. As Stone laments:

In all ages women may lament the ungallant silence of the historian. His pen is the record of sterner actions than are usually the vocation of the gentler sex. [...] Consequently those domestic virtues which are the woman’s greatest pride [...] those gentle occupations, find no record on pages whose chief aim is the blazoning of manly heroism, of royal disputations, or trumpet-stirring records. (28)

21While the actions of men are recorded in history, woman “steals noiselessly through her appointed path in life; and [...] is quickly lost in oblivion” (28) Given the ephemerality of much of women’s work and their exclusion from print culture, Victorian women had few opportunities to narrate their histories. Needlework provided women with a material space in which to record their stories and experiences. It guaranteed the transfer of female history. It ensured the survival of lineage. It signified solidity and rootedness. It permitted women to write themselves down in history – to leave their mark.

  • 6 Plotz focuses on the portability of things, rather than on their capacity to be owned.

22The production, but also the ownership of textiles was important in terms of female legacy because, for the majority of women, textiles were all they had to leave behind them. This is true from a metaphorical point of view: not all women could write, but most could sew. Material traces were much more efficient for women than textual ones in recording their lives. However, the ownership of small, movable objects such as quilts or samplers, which John Plotz has called “portable property” took on a crucial dimension in the 19th century (1-23).6 This is because, prior to the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870, women were barred from ownership of real estate. Under the common law, which concerned the vast majority of women, wives lost all legal rights on marriage because of the law of “coverture,” which meant that their legal identities were absorbed into those of their husbands (See Holcombe and Shanley). As John Stuart Mill declared, the law conferred “upon one of the parties to the contract, legal power and control over the person, property, and freedom of action of the other party, independent of her own wishes and will” (Dolin 2). Prior to 1870, marriage thus meant dispossession for most women. This, along with inheritance laws which favoured male heirs, meant that few women could own land and houses. As Deborah Wynne explains, the social and legal disabilities of Victorian women were instrumental in the formation of their relationship to the material world (6). At a time where women were denied other forms of possession, including self-possession, it is no surprise that they invested small, portable items as indexes of personal property that could be treasured, safeguarded and passed on to future generations. For Victorian women, the ownership and careful curating of personal property suggested stability, belonging and identity where the social space had failed them.

23Perhaps the most poignant articulation of female property loss is illustrated in The Mill on the Floss. When the Tullivers face ruin, the whole family is affected. The greatest distress, however, is felt by Mrs Tulliver:

Mrs Tulliver was seated there with all her laid-up treasures. One of the linen-chests was open; the silver tea-pot was unwrapped from its many folds of paper, and the best china was laid out on the top of the closed linen-chest; spoons and skewers and ladles were spread in rows on the shelves; and the poor woman was shaking her head and weeping, with a bitter tension of the mouth, over the mark, “Elizabeth Dodson,” on the corner of some table-cloths she held in her lap. (204)

24Mrs Tulliver’s grief at losing her silver, china and linen has often been understood as comic. While the family faces a catastrophic financial and social situation, her excessive investment in domestic objects seems out of place and provokes Maggie’s annoyance: “Mother, how can you talk so as if you cared only for things with your name on and not what has my father’s name too?” (207). Read in the context of female property relations in the 19th century, however, Mrs Tulliver’s reaction to the loss of her “things” takes on a deeper meaning, particularly since she has made them herself:

“To think o’ these clothes as I spun myself,” she went on, lifting things out and turning them over with and excitement all the more strange and piteous because the stout blonde woman was usually so passive. [...] “And Job Haxey wove ’em and brought the piece home on his back, as I remember standing at the door and seeing him come, before I ever thought o’ marrying your father! And the pattern as I chose myself – and bleached so beautiful, and I marked ’em so as nobody ever saw such marking; they must cut the cloth to get it out, for it’s a particular stitch. And they’ll all be sold, and go into other people’s houses, and perhaps be cut with knives, and wore out before I’m dead. You’ll never have one of ’em, my boy,” she said, looking up at Tom with eyes full of tears, “and I meant ’em for you.” (205)

25The marking of linen was a skill learned by young girls as part of a well-rounded education. Sampler-making enabled them to practice their embroidery skills in order to transfer them to more practical items when they became household managers. Sheets, pillowcases, tablecloths and household textiles were labelled in thread or ink with the initials of the owner and, sometimes, numbers. This was done for practical reasons: marking was a useful system to keep track of what one had, and it was the only way to reclaim property in case of theft. More symbolically, it was a vehicle for female self-expression in which women could leave marks, signs and traces of their lives.

26Because women’s handicrafts existed outside the nexus of commodity exchange, they were considered as properties: ideally, they could be treasured as household possessions, given to charitable causes, exchanged as gifts or lovingly bequeathed – but not sold. If the threatened loss of her marked linen is traumatic for Mrs Tulliver, it is because it signifies the violation of the most intimate of objects (household and body linen) made in the most intimate and embodied way. Because she has spun, bleached, sewn and marked them herself, Mrs Tulliver’s textiles signify an inalienable bond between the maker and her things. The small marks read “Elizabeth Dodson,” a memorandum of her identity before she was assumed into that of her husband in “a particular stitch” that is unique and irreplaceable. Because the linen was intended as an heirloom, it was lovingly gauged, embellished, preserved and meant for other family members as a reminder of its maker. It is no wonder that Mrs Tulliver is horrified at the thought of her loss. If her linen was meant as a carrier of memory and identity, then the intrusion of strangers in that most intimate of textile spaces is viewed as a violent act akin to dismemberment. Not only, she fears, will her name and identity be “cut with knives,” quite poignantly, she will have nothing for future generations to remember her by, for they risk being “wor[n] out” before she is dead. Mrs Tulliver is not being histrionic: the loss of her linen signifies her erasure from history – a dispossession akin to a loss of self. Needlework permitted women to interact with materiality at a time where they were denied other forms of possession, including self-possession. Because, very often, such pieces were all they had, even the smallest and most ordinary handicraft could act as an important carrier of identity.

  • 7 For an in-depth analysis of Elizabeth Parker’s sampler, see Llewellyn as well as both Goggin articl (...)

27In 1830, a young servant called Elizabeth Parker stitched an enigmatic textile in which she narrates her early life, her experience of horrific abuse and her suicide attempts. Although it is cross-stitched in red silk on a linen background, the word “sampler” is not quite appropriate, given its content and austerity. Rather, it is a stitched text of astounding generic complexity, which reads as a memoir yet rejects the conventions of the written text.7 The document is permeated by a reflection on time and memory. In her enigmatic sampler, Parker comments rather pessimistically on the likelihood of her being remembered: “But ah the dead forgotten lie. Their memory and their name is gone. They are alike unknowing and unknown.” Other Victorian needlewomen were more hopeful, however, and seem to have been aware of the value of needlework for bequeathing a discursive legacy. The marking of linen with initials, numbers or other traces invested ordinary household goods with moving reminders of their makers. Likewise, the samplers made by young girls contained information about the names and ages of their makers, and dates of completion, as if to record a milestone, a coming of age that was an important event in a girl’s life. Samplers often recorded family relations, or important events in the maker’s life: a birth, marriage or death, for example. Other textiles, such as quilts, were also employed to record memory. Handicrafts were carefully cherished or circulated as gifts, as keepsakes of friendship or romance or as legacies, and were invested with enormous affective value.

28It is no accident that so many embroidered samplers contain Bible verses, proverbs or thoughts about time. Samplers were used to inculcate patience and perseverance in children; because embroidery was slow, laborious work, it inevitably brought up the questions of time, especially for those for whom sewing was a penance. Many of these inscriptions were dour moralistic verses about the fast pace of time, the inevitability of death and the necessity of virtue to avoid damnation. Nevertheless, the textual and iconographical inscriptions in samplers are unanimous in their articulation of a desire for remembrance. In some cases, the plea for memory was made explicit, as this popular 18th century verse illustrates:

When this you see, remember me,

And keep me in your mind,

And be not like the weather cock

That turn at every wind.

When I am dead, and lie in grave,

And all my bones are rotten,

By this may I remembered be

When I should be forgotten. (134)

29Of course, embroidery was not the only expressive form of needlework. Even the plainest of petticoats could have an extraordinary power to move because it was imprinted with the subjectivity of its maker, the individual slant of her stitches, the tension of her thread, the spacing of her pleating and the style of her mark. “Remember me” is a line that could apply to women’s needlework as a whole, because the hope, for the maker, was that her sewing would survive her.

30In recalling the symbolic opposition between the (female) needle and the (male) sword, Stone notes that the needle is not merely worthy of mention; it might actually be mightier than the sword:

Yet have the NEEDLE and its beautiful and useful creations remained without the due need of praise and record [...] the scathing and destroying sword, has been the theme of admiring and exalting record without limit and without end! The progress of real civilisation is rapidly putting an end to this false prestige [...] and this time seems at length arrived [...] when [needlework] may be treated as a fitting subject of historical and social record – fitting at least for a female hand. (28)

31Rather than an expression of weakness and capitulation, Stone’s conclusion – “fitting [...] for a female hand” seems to suggest the superiority of handicraft over warcraft. Where the sword destroys, divides, dismembers and wipes out, the needle sutures, mends and builds community.

  • 8 See Anzieu, Serres, and Ackerman.

32Embroidery was a visual practice, but it was even more so a tactile one. Women used their hands to produce crafts which were, in turn, designed to invite viewers to touch and feel the slippery smoothness of silk, the plush feel of velvet, the prickly warmth of wool or the delicacy of lace. Because it was allied with earlier modes of production, Victorian women’s needlework served as a reassuring repository of an embodied past. It both remembered and re-membered. Didier Anzieu and others have noted the therapeutic nature of touch: by addressing the body, touch has the ability to mend, to suture, to re-make the “I” that Anzieu has called the skin ego.8 Needlework seems to have been the perfect metaphor for the therapeutic touch: not only did handicrafts employ, invite and retain the touch; the act of sewing was, in itself an act of binding and mending. It is no wonder that so many Victorian heroines turn to needlework in times of emotional distress: the act of plying the needle, the touch of fabric, the sense of making and binding, could be extraordinarily soothing. So much so, that it was thought to have a narcotic effect, as Harriet Martineau marvelled in 1860:

It is sometimes said that the needle is to a woman what the cigar is to the man – a tranquilising, equalising influence, conservative and restorative. It is at least this; and I should imagine more. (cited in Ledbetter 5)

33Martineau was not the only woman to use needlework as a metaphor for nicotine. In 1855, Mrs. Merrifield, a columnist for the Lady’s Newspaper, wrote that it “may be seen to possess some of the soothing influence attributed to a cigar, without bad effects” (cited in Ledbetter 5). In 1893, another writer named Hulda Friederichs also compared sewing to smoking, but added that sewing was far superior; should her readers feel themselves distressed, she argued, they could relieve themselves of “all manner of disturbing elements” by turning to their “work-bag and its contents” (cited in Ledbetter 5). These confident comparisons between sewing and smoking read slightly comically to the modern reader, used to viewing needlework only and hegemonically in terms of dutiful, ladylike domesticity. Nevertheless, they provide a useful insight with which to view Victorian women’s needlework as yet another way they could serve their own ends. I would argue that this additional layer of meaning – sewing as a form of therapeutic release – is helpful to our understanding of difficult crafts, such as Elizabeth Parker’s diary. In her analysis of Parker’s stitched text, Maureen Daly Goggin turns to the notion of “writing trauma,” which she explains as “a working through, and acting out, by those who by those who experienced the traumatic event first-hand” (11). Parker’s embroidery, then, serves both as a means to record traumatic events and to come to terms with them, as Goggin writes:

However it is read, Parker’s sampler serves as a discursive space in which to cope with debilitating struggles – a space in which to speak what she cannot ‘speak’ and write what she cannot ‘write’ elsewhere. It is a space to grapple with a wounded mind and a wounded body. (11)

34Like Parker’s therapeutic “diary,” Victorian women’s handicrafts have acted as spaces of remembrance and re-membrance, in which the conflicted “I” could be confronted, negotiated and mended.


35Handicrafts were ideal spaces of remembrance, as Stewart notes:

Because of its connection to biography and its place in constituting the notion of the individual life, the memento becomes emblematic of the worth of that life and of the self’s capacity to generate worthiness. (136)

36This is particularly true for needlework, textile objects were designed to last and persist – however varied the forms they might be recycled in. The reticules, purses and slippers made by Victorian women had the capacity to record the spirit of their makers and their relationships with others. Needlework, then, allowed Victorian women to inhabit the space between history and the present. It was positioned – somewhat precariously – in a delicate balance between the “there and then” and the “here and now,” allowing women to develop a relation to the past while strongly asserting their modernity.

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List of illustrations

Fig. 1: Berlin-wool work pattern, circa 1860 (private collection).

Fig. 2: Cross-stitch diagram. Reproduced from Beeton’s Needlework.

Fig. 3: The Macaw, Lovebirds, Terrier and Spaniel Puppies Belonging to Her Majesty. Berlin wool work, 1840 (private collection).

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1 Charlotte Brontë, Villette. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2000 [1853].

2 Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993.

3 In contrast, Lucy notes that her eyes might be failing her: “My eye […] blinked baffled;” “I had passed into an abnormal state of mind […] I was ill and delirious” (170-171).

4 Of course, things were considerably more complex. Plain-sewing was the foundation of all needlework, and plain and fancy sewing were considerably intertwined; in a passage from The Mill on the Floss, Lucy marvels about Maggie’s plain-sewing, saying that “your plain sewing is so beautiful […] that I think I shall beg a few specimens of you to show as fancy-work” (Eliot 387).

5 See, for example, Bowman.

6 Plotz focuses on the portability of things, rather than on their capacity to be owned.

7 For an in-depth analysis of Elizabeth Parker’s sampler, see Llewellyn as well as both Goggin articles listed below. The sampler can be seen here

8 See Anzieu, Serres, and Ackerman.

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Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 1: Berlin-wool work pattern, circa 1860 (private collection)
Fichier image/png, 161k
Légende Fig. 2: Cross-stitch diagram. Reproduced from Beeton’s Needlework
Fichier image/png, 36k
Légende Fig. 3: The Macaw, Lovebirds, Terrier and Spaniel Puppies Belonging to Her Majesty. Berlin wool work, 1840 (private collection)
Fichier image/png, 170k
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Róisín QUINN-LAUTREFIN, « [T]hat pincushion made of crimson satin:” Embroidery, Discourse and Memory in Victorian Literature and Culture »E-rea [En ligne], 16.1 | 2018, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2018, consulté le 05 juillet 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Université Paris Diderot, Paris, France
Róisín Quinn-Lautrefin teaches English language and literature in Paris. In 2016, she completed a PhD on Victorian needlework and female subjectivity at the University of Paris-Diderot. Her research interests include gender, craft, needlework, literacy and touch.

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