Jane Austen’s muslin shawlText by Hilary Davidson, Honorary Associate at the University of Sydney
Like all women of her time and class, Jane Austen learnt to sew in childhood, and gained a life-long skill. Sewing was something she was particularly good at. In 1796 Austen wrote in a letter that she was ‘the neatest worker’ of a group making shirts for one of her brothers. Edward Austen-Knight remembered of his aunt that ‘Her needlework both plain and ornamental was excellent, and might almost have put a sewing machine to shame. She was considered especially great in satin stitch.’
Satin stitch is the technique used for the pattern of small crosses scattered over the shawl of fine, hand-woven Indian muslin. The thick white cotton thread would have indeed required a skilled sewer to make such exact designs in contrast with the fine, gauzy fabric. The effect of ‘whitework’, as it was known, was especially popular during Austen’s lifetime. White muslin grew in fashionability from the late eighteenth century until by 1800 it was the most popular choice for women’s dresses and accessories. As Henry Tilney says in Northanger Abbey, “muslin always turns to some account or other… a handkerchief, or a cap, or a cloak. Muslin can never be said to be wasted.’ Everyone from international royalty to the poorer of the respectable classes wore muslin. Although good British-made fabric competed in quality, the most delicate examples still came from India.
Family history says Jane Austen embroidered this shawl. Without more pieces of Austen’s sewing to compare it is hard to be sure, and the crosses do resemble Indian work on other historic garments. What is clear from the repairs is that this shawl was a valued item of clothing, and its owner took great care of it. The careful, precise sewing on the hems, lace strip, darns and patches, show a highly-skilled needle-woman at work.