Puzzling Needlework in Pride and Prejudice

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There’s a passage in Pride and Prejudice that has always puzzled me. I this passage Elizabeth is hanging out with the Mr. Darcy, Mr. Hurst and the Bingley’s in the drawing room. The other folks are otherwise engaged and Elizabeth, casting about for an activity to while away the evening, picks up some needlework.

The day passed much as the day before had done. Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley had spent some hours of the morning with the invalid, who continued, though slowly, to mend; and in the evening Elizabeth joined their party in the drawing room. The loo table, however, did not appear. Mr. Darcy was writing, and Miss Bingley, seated near him, was watching the progress of his letter, and repeatedly calling off his attention by messages to his sister. Mr. Hurst and Mr. Bingley were at piquet, and Mrs. Hurst was observing their game.

Elizabeth took up some needlework, and was sufficiently amused in attending to what passed between Darcy and his companion. The perpetual commendations of the lady either on his hand-writing, or on the evenness of his lines, or on the length of his letter, with the perfect unconcern with which her praises were received, formed a curious dialogue, and was exactly in unison with her opinion of each.

The way this passage is written, it seems to imply that there was some spare, communal needlework lying around in the drawing room, free for anyone to pick up and work on for a few minutes. I have questions:

  • Was this a common practice in wealthy homes, to keep one or two fancywork projects on hand in case a visitor got bored?
  • What would such a piece end up looking like with so many different hands of various levels of skill working on it?
  • How did they come up with a coherent design? Back then they didn’t really have patterns the way we do now. Was there an etiquette related to this sort of project? Perhaps a little written note and a sketch telling the user what the project was intended to be and what it should look like?
  • I sincerely hope they didn’t do this sort of thing with knitting projects. Your gauge would be all over the place. Heavens to Betsy, what a mess!

Imagine if different visitors disagreed about political boundaries. Antique Regency needlework from ebay.

What is perhaps more likely is that Elizabeth had some needlework of her own to work on. But there are problems with that scenario as well:

  • She walked three miles cross-country to reach Netherfield and probably did not carry any needlework with her.
  • Her mother and sisters visited her earlier in the day, but they all seem so flighty that I can’t imagine they would think to bring her any entertainment.
  • At some point they must have sent a servant to fetch her clothes, but there is no mention of fetching other things. Is it assumed that when a lady visits at someone else’s house that someone should bring her a needlework project?

This needlework question is very confusing and it bothers me every time I read Pride and Prejudice.

15 thoughts on “Puzzling Needlework in Pride and Prejudice

  1. Fascinating! I know that women used to carry a ‘pocket’ beneath their garments for valuables and necessities so perhaps she had one on her and she always had needlework stashed in there. Or perhaps the ‘fetch the clothes’ implies more, just as it probably would in this day too. Or maybe she had torn her hose on the journey and was sat in the fancy drawing room mending those! 😉

    • caityrosey

      I can just see her, with her hosieried leg propped up on the coffee table, darning away. Perhaps that’s why Mr. Darcy was writing so slowly.

  2. It would have been commonplace for a woman to take some form of needlework with her at that time. Which is why I love Civil War Reenacting. It’s the one time no one looks at me like I’m weird for pulling out my knitting over tea!

    • caityrosey

      I totally get that and it definitely makes sense. I’m wondering though, in terms of the narrative, when would she have had the opportunity to acquire her work basket or a little reticule with a needlework project. It doesn’t seem to make sense that she would have thought to bring it with her on her initial trip. It makes the most sense to suppose that it was brought to her along with her clothes later on.

      Here’s the thing though. The way it’s worded, Austen refers to her picking up needlework with put any indication of origin or ownership. That part is absent from the narrative. If it belonged to Elizabeth, I would think the author would at the very least use a possessive pronoun when referring to it. Or might say that she pulled it out of her work bag, pocket, etc.

      The way it’s written makes it sound as though she picked up needlework that was just lying around in the drawing room. Like perusing a coffee table book.

  3. Maybe she always had work with her so the possessive pronoun is almost superfluous… oh and she might’ve been a sock knitter – a sock would be easy to carry for 3 miles in a little purse 😉

  4. Q – I would assume embroidery or crewel work. The author didn’t do the illustrations, the illustrator probably just drew what he thought “needlework” was. The British definition of Needlework – sewing, especially decorative sewing done with needle and thread. I’ve always read the British books assuming this is what they mean when the author says, “Needlework”.

  5. I never noticed that before. From the way it’s written I would guess she had some with her…kind of like how someone might refer to me “taking out a scarf” or “taking out some knitting” rather than “taking out her scarf” if I pulled out the scarf currently sitting in my purse. It is oddly vague though.

    • caityrosey

      So here’s my question. Would it have been possible in those days to have a communal project for visitors lying around? Is this in the realm of possibility. Were there certain designs/motifs so well known that anyone could be expected to pick them up and work on them. I know there was a lot of enculturated needlework knowledge in those days.

      • Knowing how common certain knitting motifs are in colorwork, especially within specific countries, I could absolutely believe there were needlepoint motifs so well known any old member of the culture could pick one up and continue it. I’ve never heard of a specific case of it actually happening, but it is believable.

  6. I don’t think it would have been a communal project. Her family would have brought a bag packed by a servant who would have included everything she would need for a stay of that length. I think from my reading history of this period that it was acceptable when staying in someone’s house and company was not expected that ladies could work on their needlework, which I think is what we would understand to be embroidery or tapestry. Darning & hemming was called white work. However, someone more knowledgeable may know better!

    • caityrosey

      Yeah, I think you (and the others) are right. It was probably just a normal thing to bring or send to a woman who is visiting. Like a tooth brush.

      I find it sort of fun to imagine the idea of communal embroidery projects though. Seems like a fun concept. Not very practical, but a part of me wished they had existed.

      Although I suppose we DO have examples of groups of women working on large embroidery projects , like some of those enormous altar cloths. But, of course, those ladies had a plan in advance and consciously coordinated their efforts. Not the same thing at all.

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