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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Women's work, international edition

When I was a girl – yes, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth – I was a dab hand at needlepoint. I stitched plastic canvas into keepsake boxes and picture frames and bookmarks. I made my mother a coupon-case to carry while she shopped at the grocery store. I worked samplers for my cousins’ weddings.

I’ve barely picked up a needle in decades – these days I lack the time and, truth be told, the eyesight – but I’m still captivated by beautiful needlework (so elegant! So delicate! So unbelievably time-consuming!) Hence my delight in a five-minute video released last week by Chawton House Library, highlighting its display of modern needlework based on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century patterns.

The needlework display, known as “The Great Lady’s Magazine Stitch Off,” accompanies a library exhibit commemorating the bicentennial of the publication of Emma. The stitch-off got its accidental start last November, when University of Kent English professor Jennie Batchelor acquired a 1796 edition of The Lady’s Magazine, the Good Housekeeping of its day, which happened to include an embroidery pattern.

Enthusiastic embroiderers latched onto Batchelor’s blogs and tweets about her find, volunteering to work the pattern themselves. Eventually, ten Lady’s Magazine patterns were made available online, and an international embroidery bee was launched.

Judging from Batchelor’s blog and Chawton House Library’s video, the results were breathtaking. Some participants recreated the patterns with scrupulous historical accuracy; some stitched modern interpretations. The display includes reticules, shoe uppers and a kissing ball, among a wealth of other items.

(What does any of this have to do with Jane Austen? Well, we know from her nephew’s 1870 memoir that she was a talented needlewoman, and she would certainly have read The Lady’s Magazine. That’s good enough for me.)

Alas, the Stitch Off display, and the Emma exhibit, close on Sunday, so if you happen to be in England, now’s the time to drop by.

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