Focus on Fashion

Shelley Tobin , Costume Curator at Killerton Shelley Tobin Costume Curator at Killerton
Tennis clothing through the ages

Darkening Evenings and Cosy Nights

As Autumn’s changes begin to show their effects in parks and gardens, and we begin searching out the woollies from the wardrobe, I’m thinking about the darkening evenings and cosy nights in with my knitting.

" Any lady who is clever with her fingers can make handsome window curtains…"
- Needlecraft: Artistic and Practical (1889)


As Autumn’s changes begin to show their effects in parks and gardens, and we begin searching out the woollies from the wardrobe, I’m thinking about the darkening evenings and cosy nights in with my knitting.

However you spend the longer Autumn and Winter nights, Christmas holiday planning looms large for many people. Whether or not you plan to make something as a gift or a new item for yourself to wear, or prefer to support makers by buying their work, there will be lots of skilled handiwork to admire and dream about over the last few months of the year.


A useful distraction

‘Those hours which in this age are thrown away in dress, play, visits and the like, were employed in my time in writing out receipts, or working beds, chairs and hangings for the family. For my part, I have plied my needle these fifty years, and would never have it out of my hand. It grieves my heart to see a couple of proud idle flirts sipping their tea, for a whole afternoon, in a room hung with the industry of their great-grand-mother…’ [Letter to The Spectator, October 14th, 1714]

In past centuries, people amused themselves by combining useful needlework with a distraction from the otherwise endless boredom of long, dark winter nights. All sorts of things were made to decorate themselves or their houses. Many of these objects survive in National Trust collections. Textiles range from small portable objects like samplers, purses and dress accessories, to a complete set of embroidered curtains.

A darning sampler from 1814 from the fashion collection at Killerton
Needlework darning sampler with intricate embroidery
A darning sampler from 1814 from the fashion collection at Killerton

A suitable occupation

The census of 1851 reveals that of about 6 million women aged 20 and over, half were married women and unmarried daughters living at home. While some had access to a basic education, many did not. Busy working-class people had very little free time to fill. The middle and upper classes were expected to pursue ‘elegant’ and suitable occupations, such as needlework.

In her unpublished autobiographical novel Cassandra (1852) Florence Nightingale describes a morning at home. The ladies occupied their time by, ‘sitting around a little table in the drawing-room, looking at prints, doing worsted work, and reading little books.’

Worsted work could apply to crewel work using worsted yarns, or other types of woolwork. There was a huge surge of interest in Berlin woolwork, a form of counted thread canvas work embroidery, from the 1830s onwards when Mr Wilks opened a warehouse to supply equipment, materials and patterns for the work. The first hand-coloured pattern charts were published in Berlin at the beginning of the nineteenth century. They were widely exported across Europe and North America after about 1810, and sold by print-sellers and stationers.

In The English Woman’s Journal’s article on ‘Female Education in the Middle Classes’ (June 1858), the writer warns that women might fall prey to the ‘curse of middle-class existence, that death in life, ennuie’. During the mid-nineteenth century a boom in the publication of women’s magazines supported the need for suitable occupations. They usually contain a variety of instructions for crafts, from knitting and appliqué to woolwork and silk embroidery. As well as providing patterns and inspiration, they sometimes advertise suppliers of threads and equipment to be sent for by post.

Many portraits and sketches exist showing women stitching by candlelight. At a time before electric lighting, much close work would have been done during the day, but a country house with many blazing candles could be lit adequately enough to allow a little needlework or reading to be done.

A patchwork and applique coverlet, c 1810
A patchwork and applique coverlet
A patchwork and applique coverlet, c 1810

To make, or to buy?

Those who did not enjoy craft or embroidery took to reading, card games or music, playing and singing the long winter evenings away, entertaining their families and their guests.

The Spectator was a daily newspaper published by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele from 1711 to December 1714 (with a break in 1712 when it was replaced by The Guardian). The journal was partly aimed at women. No matter how much needlework was promoted, younger women did not always have time for it. Responding to the discussion in The Spectator, ‘Cleora’ comments that ladies should not fill their time with needlework, but encourage artisans by purchasing embroidered furnishings and fashionable embossed leather hangings to decorate their chambers:

A patchwork quilt c 1870-90
A patchwork quilt made with lots of brightly coloured pieces
A patchwork quilt c 1870-90

‘…I love birds and beasts as well as you, but am content to fancy them when they are ready made. What do you think of gilt leather for furniture? There’s your pretty hanging for a chamber, and what is more, our own country is the only place in Europe where work of that kind is tolerably done. Without minding your musty lessons, I am this morning going to St Paul’s Churchyard to bespeak a screen and a set of hangings, and am resolved to encourage the manufacture of my country.’ ( Letter to The Spectator, October 20th 1714)

Nevertheless, plenty of examples of domestic embroidery survive in public and private collections.

Our current exhibition includes a selection of objects from the collections which represent decorative textiles and dress that could be made at home. There are many more examples of these to be seen online at .

The Costume Assistant packing items from the collection

Killerton's collection

Find photographs and details of thousands of items, from dress patterns to ballgowns to underwear and shawls.