Victorian Children, Consumerism, and Licking Alum

I just published a piece for The Conversation on my research on the Great Exhibition, children’s literature, and how the Victorians taught their children about sustainability and consumerism.

You can read the full article here: https://theconversation.com/the-victorians-taught-children-about-consumerism-and-we-can-learn-from-them-too-76658

 

I know it’s not about craft – though it is about archives in a way – but I promise I am working on some new posts. More later.

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe of Vintage Clothes

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This week, I’ve been mostly marking essays from my undergraduate module Origins and Developments of Children’s Literature. Actually, I’ve been mostly marking essays about C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) because the majority of the class are completely fixated on the book and want to write about it. Which is no bad thing really.[1]

I’ve done a lot of research about C.S. Lewis, particularly into in his use of landscape and the role that his memories of Ireland and his relationship with Ireland play in his fiction. I’ve given a couple of talks about his work and there was a brief time when I thought I might write my next book about his Narnia series. But then I got distracted by Victorian children’s books and the possibilities of archvies I’ve had to put Narnia aside for another day….

But I still get to lecture about Lewis and Narnia every year which is some compensation.

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was published in 1950 though it was conceived of rather earlier. Lewis wrote to a friend in 1948 to say he was working on a children’s story “in the tradition of E Nesbit” and in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he notes that the image of the faun in the snow had come to him when he was a teenager. But the story is set during World War II and it bears the marks of its wartime setting throughout.

Several critics have noted the influence of rationing on the story. Judy Rosenbaum observes that the meal Lucy shares with Mr Tumnus

“is not, it would seem, a feast befitting a wondrous kingdom. Yet meals of this simple, hearty variety abound in Narnia. One reason might be that as Lewis wrote the Narnian Chronicles, England was still living under stringent wartime/postwar food rationing. Every English child would have savored reading about these meals.”[2]

But the description of the meal doesn’t just make it seem like a wonderful treat in the midst of rationing, it also suggests that there’s something very odd about Mr Tumnus. The meal he provides for Lucy is almost totally comprised of items that were rationed and were increasingly hard to come by. So, the tea may even hint that there is something sinister about Mr Tumnus. Is he a black-marketer? Does this luxury and abundance come from his alliance with the White Witch?

But the aspect of rationing that interests me is clothes rationing.

Clothes rationing  came into effect in Britain in 1941. There are numerous  blogs about vintage fashion that cover the topic. Lucky Lucille has a fantastic round up of links about different aspects of rationingand The History Girls have some brilliant resources, including a review of the Imperial War Museum’s “Fashion on the Ration” exhibition.  One of the best things I’ve stumbled across is a radio show called “Harry and Edna on the Wireless” which combines old-timey tunes with up-to-date chats about the vintage scene: this episode features an interview with Laura Clouting, the curator of the “Fashion on the Ration” exhibition, and historian Julie Summers (who has her own wonderful blog here).

Clothes were so strictly rationed that, as Laura Clouting points out, a new outfit was seen as something you saved up for, a ‘dream’ purchase for some future after the war ended.[3]

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Plan Your Future, Save with a plan, 1945 poster: Art.IWM PST 16368 Taken from http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/8-facts-about-clothes-rationing-in-britain-during-the-second-world-war

 

Clothes play an essential part in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – they help to describe character and they shape relationships between characters. The children enter Narnia through a wardrobe (which is full of fur coats and mothballs).

Pauline Baynes illustration from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

illustration by Pauline Baynes

So, for the most recent lecture on C.S. Lewis and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, I decided to focus on the role clothing plays in the text.

 

In the seminar on Lewis and Narnia, I put up the clothing allowances and the number of coupons allocated to each item and ask students to add up how many coupons their outfits would have cost them.

There are always gasps of horror and giggles as we realise how prodigal our attitudes to clothing have become. There’s usually an argument about why dresses should ‘cost’ more than trousers and why men’s shoes have to cost more than women’s shoes, regardless of the size. Most of this year’s group were either cutting it fine or well over the rationed allowance (wearing socks over a pair of tights was a particular extravagance). One student this year had an outfit that ‘cost’ 60 coupons – more than a whole year’s ration. And then there’s always the moment that the realisation sinks in…no more new clothes for a whole year.

Always winter, never Christmas.

Which makes clothes in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe all the more interesting.

Think about the wonderful new clothes bestowed on the children when they reach Aslan’s camp. Or think about the luxurious furs worn by the White Witch and the weight and warmth of the mantle she drapes over Edmund.

Clothes also reveal much about the characters in the story. For instance, Mr Tumnus’ dual nature is show by the contrast between his bare torso (his Pan-like wildness) and the red scarf muffling his throat (his essential domesticity).

In terms of rationing, we can look to the Beavers:

At the Beavers’ house, Mrs Beaver is busy sewing when the children arrive. Like the freshly-prepared meal that nourishes the children, sewing is a sign of a deeper trustworthiness. It’s a sign that the Beavers, unlike Mr Tumnus or Jadis, are frugal and are willing to make do and mend. Though they are Narnians, the Beavers adhere to the codes of food and fashion the children are familiar with from war-time England.[5]

And so to the wardrobe of war-time clothes…

When I visited the archives at the Imperial War Museum I found a bundle of knitting patterns. Some of them were terrible – things that could only be made for a joke, or for a post-apocalyptic horror movie where there’s no heating and fashion has been murdered in its sleep. But other patterns had the potential to pass as real garments and I planned to make a couple of them. The first one I made was a land girl’s pullover.

But then other projects and other archives grabbed my attention and I didn’t really think about the possible projects from the IWM for a long time.

Then in Autumn I heard that twin-sets were back.

I’m now pretty certain that this is a lie but the internet did a pretty good job of persuading me twin-sets were, indeed, THE thing to wear this winter. And I was pretty sure that Peggy Carter would be everyone’s idea of a style icon and I was certain that a twin-set would be just the ticket.

And so I turned to my notes and rediscovered this thing of magnificent and hideous beauty.

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Striped Twin-set from Vogue’s 20th Knitting Book

Just look at those shoulders!

This striped twin-set is from Vogue’s 20th Knitting book. I don’t have an exact publication date but the advertisement for Sandisons Real Shetland Yarns printed to the right of the pattern makes reference to coupons so I know it was published while rationing was still in effect.

 

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This issue and several other issues of Vogue were used in the Imperial War Museum’s “Fashion on the Ration” exhibition.

The original pattern calls for 12oz of Sirdar Super Shetland 3-ply in dark green and 3oz of the same in light green. After a bit of research[6] I found out there was approximately 140 yards to the ounce of this yarn. It’s unavailable now so I cast on in Mabel and Ivy’s Supersoft 2-ply (Prussian blue because green makes me look like I need a lot of sleep and a generous amount of rouge). The Supersoft is rapidly becoming my go-to yarn for vintage projects.

Because I hate seaming, I decided to cast on the back and fronts together and knit them as a single piece. This didn’t seem to affect the overall width of the cardigan. The pattern suggests that it’s for a 34’’ bust but there is a lot of ease and the shape of the body (increasing gradually in width from the waistband to the underarms) leads to a very generous fit.

The pattern instructions are here. The magazine is laid out very strangely so I’ve had to use several images to reproduce the pattern. If you follow them in order, all should be well.

 

Modifications

Needles: I could not get gauge using the needles suggested in the pattern so I went down a couple of sizes. The ribbing was worked with a 2.5mm needle and the stocking-stitch worked with a 2.75mm needle.

Sleeves: I’ve had problems with the sleeves on vintage patterns before so I decided to add an extra half inch to the suggested length for the sleeves.

Buttonholes: The original pattern suggests adding buttonholes where needed as you knit but I wanted to try on the finished cardigan first before I decided how many buttons to use or where to place them. So I decided to add buttonholes afterwards as part of a buttonband. Once I had the cardigan finished I tried it on and marked where I wanted buttons with safety pins.

Button band: I don’t hate myself and so I decided not the follow the pattern for the buttonband (which suggests casting on six stitches and knitting back and forward until you have a strip long enough to face the entire edge of the cardigan). I picked up stitches with the 2.5mm needle and worked in K1P1 rib for 7 rows, adding button holes in the 3rd/4th row, before casting off in rib.

Shoulders: When I tried on the finished cardigan I realised that it was designed for someone with a serious addiction to shoulder-pads. As you can see from the photos above, it looks like it’s falling off my shoulders and I am losing the effect of that lovely high sleeve cap. I either have to invest in some shoulder pads or I will need to put a couple of stitches in the top of the sleeve to secure the sleeve cap in place and give the effect of narrowing the shoulders without having to rip back or fold the fabric. Will experiment and update.

Pocket Flaps: I haven’t made these yet – I’m waiting to see if I have yarn left over from the sweater before I do anything rash.

Next up – half a dozen other vintage projects including trying to cook from William Morris’s recipe file, knitting from a 19th century lace pattern for Glasgow University’s Knitting in the Round Project, and my part in Roehampton University’s bran-new Archiving Childhood Project. And making the jumper for this twin-set!

***

[1] I secretly yearn for the day when Maria Edgeworth is given her due as a clever, forward-thinking writer of children’s books and is the star of a whole batch of undergraduate essays. Though it’s hard when she’s up against Lewis in the module. Lessons about logic and managing the household budget just aren’t as thrilling as talking lions. Pity.

[2] Judy Rosenbaum. “Critical Approaches to Food in Children’s Literature (review).” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 34.3 (2009): 297-299. Project MUSE. Web. 8 Jan. 2016. <https://muse.jhu.edu/&gt;.

[3] http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/8-facts-about-clothes-rationing-in-britain-during-the-second-world-war

[4] Plan Your Future, Save with a plan, 1945 poster: Art.IWM PST 16368 Taken from http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/8-facts-about-clothes-rationing-in-britain-during-the-second-world-war

If you’re more interested in the style than the history, I’d recommend Mrs. Fox’s Finery and Tuppence Ha’penny Vintage  which have numerous posts about vintage clothes, makeup, and hair which are very useful for all vintage enthusiasts and really just lovely to look at too.

[5] Though it is worth noting that the Pevensies are wearing fur coats when they arrive at the Beavers’ house. In WWII many fur coats were made of beaver-skin so I’m always a little curious as to what the Beavers really think about their fur-clad visitors.

[6] For ‘research’ in this instance read “creative Googling”

Hats fit for Heroes

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I have some exciting news.

A couple of weeks ago, Charlotte from Palace Green Library at Durham University got in touch to ask if I would like to be involved in their Hats Fit for Heroes charity campaign. As part of their upcoming exhibition ‘Antarctica: Explorers, Heroes, Scientists’ (opens 17th October) the Palace Green Library in Durham are running a knitting event called ‘Hats fit for Heroes’. The idea is to ask knitters/crocheters/sewers to make hats based on those worn by Antarctic explorers and then to sell them with all of the proceeds going to Walking with the Wounded, a charity that works with wounded service men and women and which last year organised an Antarctic trek.

My Tom Crean Teacosy Hat pattern is one of the patterns they chose for the campaign.

I’m delighted to be part of the campaign. I’m very excited by the fact that something I did with this blog could have a real impact on the lives of others. I never thought that a teacosy could change lives! And I never thought anyone would ever describe me as a designer. But there you are.

If you missed the original post, you can read all about Tom Crean and his mighty hat here. Since I posted that piece back in February, I’ve been following Antarctic Discovery, a blog that publishes pieces from Shackleton’s diary. It makes for fascinating reading and I’d recommend it if you want to find out more about Antarctic explorers of the heroic era.

Hats have already started to arrive at Palace Green Library and I’m really pleased to see that there’s a couple of tea-cosy hats there already!

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If you want to make a teacosy hat the pattern PDF is here:Tom Crean Tea Cosy Hat

If you’re on Twitter, you can follow the campaign at #AHatFitForAHero

Here’s all the details from Palace Green Library about the campaign:

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Could you knit, crochet or sew a hat fit for a hero?

As part of our upcoming exhibition ‘Antarctica: Explorers, Heroes, Scientists’ (opening 17th Oct 2015), Palace Green Library in Durham is seeking crafting enthusiasts to make hats fit for heroes, inspired by Antarctic explorers.

All proceeds will be donated to Walking with the Wounded, a charity working with wounded service men and women across the UK. The charity organised a trek across the Antarctic in 2013 (www.walkingwiththewounded.org.uk).

How can I help?

Get crafty and create your own hat fit for a hero. You can knit, crochet or sew your hat, and it can be adult or child sized. Be as creative as you like but if you are using someone else’s pattern, please make sure you have permission to make a hat that can be sold for charity.  If you are looking for a knitting pattern, we have teamed up with Woolaballoo in Hexham and knitting designers Jane Carroll of ‘Archives and Old Lace’ and Angelea McGarrah have kindly agreed to the use of their patterns based on authentic explorer hats. These will be available on our website in the next few weeks: www.durham.ac.uk/palace.green/headstart

Then simply bring along your finished hat to one of the drop off points in Durham, Hexham or Harrogate:

  • Palace Green Library, Durham
  • Woolabaloo, Market Square, Hexham
  • Woolabaloo stall, Hall B, The Knitting and Stitching Show, Harrogate (26-29 November only)

Or you can post your hat to:

Palace Green Library
Palace Green
Durham
DH1 3RN

We need to receive your hat no later than 30 November 2015. Please include your name and up to 50 words about your hat.

We are also running two free craft workshops with pattern giveaways to help get you started – details to follow.

We will be selling our hats from 1 December 2015  in the gift shop at Palace Green Library, Durham. All hats will cost £15.00 with all profits going to Walking with the Wounded.  We hope to raise even more money as Barclays Bank has kindly agreed to match fund the first £1,000 raised.

If you can, we’d love you to print and display the attached poster in your venue. If you need any further information or would like us to send you some printed flyers, please don’t hesitate to contact the good people at Palace Green Library: pg.library@durham.ac.uk or follow them on Twitter: @palacegreenlib

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Make do and mend weekend

It’s been a make do and mend sort of weekend.

I spent Saturday morning at a darning workshop with Tom van Deijnen (better known as Tom of Holland) at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

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Tom of Holland is a textiles practitioner who specialises in mending and in visible repair. He talked to the group about his practice and his decision to repair things, not because of a need to ‘make do’ but because of a desire to engage more deeply with the things we use and consume. As makers, we grow to love the things we have made. Every time we pull on a pair of hand-knit socks or wrap ourselves in a hand-made blanket, we are reminded of the story of the item – the hours put into making it, the materials within it, its flaws, its beauties. It’s all too easy to overlook the stories behind the objects we buy from the high street, or to see these stories as less valuable. Repair can help us to re-engage with these items and add new strands to the story.

In the workshop, we learned two darning techniques: Swiss darning (which is a bit like embroidering on knitted fabric) and stocking darning (for repairing holes in knitted fabric). Tom showed us some beautiful examples of decorative darning and encouraged us to try things out, to make mistakes, and to be brave with our new skills.

I found Swiss darning sort of relaxing. There’s a nice rhythm to the needle swinging in and out of the fabric, following the path of the original yarn.  After about ten minutes I was totally addicted. I want to Swiss darn everything. Cushions. Jumpers. Socks. The backs of other people’s coats on the bus. I could be like a darning Zorro, leaving my mark on everyone that comes within reach of my needle.

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Obviously, my hat will be much nicer than his

Thankfully, just before I got completely carried away, we had a break from the darning and were taken on a little tour of repaired items in the Pitt Rivers museum. There’s a special exhibition on at the moment – Preserving What is Valued – and a museum trail of repaired objects. The tour added a different dimension to the workshop. There’s a tradition of mending that extends across the world, to every community and it was interesting to see where our own practices and habits fit into this tradition.

After the tour, we came back to the workshop space and learned stocking darning (also called web darning) which I found trickier because knitted fabric just wants to stretch and filling in the holes feels a little like working against, rather than with, the fabric. I wasn’t so enthusiastic about stocking darning – I didn’t want to mob people on the bus – but I can see how functional it is and how useful it will be. I can think of at least four things in the house that need to be darned and now I sort of know how to do it.*

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My first attempts at Swiss darning and a stocking darn

So, Sunday came round and I was keen to try out my new darning skills. I settled in with a pair of very holey socks (so holey they could belong in a shrine), a cup of tea, and A Playful Day’s podcast which, serendipitously, was an interview with Jen Gale of Make do and Mendable.

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And then I REALLY started to think about mending…

Jen’s No New Clothes for a Year challenge seems tough. I love the idea of the slow wardrobe and I’m more likely to buy wool or fabric than new clothes from the high street but I feel that a total ban would be hard. There are things I just don’t know how to make – like shoes and waterproof coats and jeans – and I don’t know if I can really do without them. Am I cheating on my slow wardrobe if I go out to buy quick fixes? Is saying “I don’t buy things from the high street except for X” really hypocritical? Kate and Jen discussed the fears and the stumbling blocks that stand in the way of embracing this sort of sustainable living. For me, I worry about the feeling of denial (insert the long shadow of an Irish childhood here) Would it feel like a year-long Lent? How does this feeling of denial tally with the inspired, happy feelings I want to associate with my crafting? I find myself strangely reminded of Jeanette Winterson’s discussion of fasting – and I’m thinking about how greed and consumption apply to fashion and material culture, just as much as they do to food.

I’ve been thinking about sustainable and fashion and my own practices as a consumer a lot more recently. Some of this was sparked by teaching war-time texts and discussing rationing in Britain with students. When I teach C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Unicorn, I bring in rationing books and get the students to ‘add up’ how many coupons they would need to purchase the outfits they are wearing to class. We normally find that very few people could ‘afford’ their outfits under the strict rules around the clothing-ration in 1940s Britain.** Recently, I found my conscience piqued by the 2015 documentary The True Cost.  The documentary is sober and sobering – it talks about the problems of consumption in the western world and, particularly, our problem of confusing the things we use (like clothes and furniture) with things we use up (like food and fuel). The idea of throwing something out because it has gone out of fashion is crazy. And our appetite for endless things is getting out of hand. We have a consumption crisis. Our wardrobes are obese.

And so I’m having a make do and mend weekend. I’ve just book marked Felicity Ford’s wonderful post about gathering a Slow Wardrobe so I can go back and read it. I need to think about how making and buying work together and what role mending can play in my own life. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this too. Do you mend things? Do you have a slow wardrobe? What are the stumbling blocks you’ve found on the way? How did you over come them? And what advice can you give me?

~

*I was always warned that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. But, if something’s broken anyway, how much worse can I really make it by trying to fix it? It’s not like knitted things will suddenly burst into flames if my darning is a little crappy, right?

**Students are always surprised to find that Lucy’s feast with Mr Tumnus breaks all the rules of rationing. They have real butter and eggs and toast – a huge indulgence for an afternoon snack – and this excess marks Mr Tumnus out as a strange and perhaps slightly dodgy character.

Sneaky peeks….jackets and skirts and shawls oh joy!

Today is rainy and miserable so I thought I’d cheer myself up with some crafting updates.

First up – progress on my Victorian walking jacket.

It’s slow going – I’m finding it hard to get the back of the neck to sit right and the problem with pinning something on myself is that every time I reach up to put in a pin I either stab myself or the whole thing moves around and I’m left taking random tucks. My method has been:  *try it on, squint critically, take it off, baste like my life depends on it, try it back on, wince, take it back off, unpick. Repeat from *.

I’m happy with bits of it. My embroidery has improved no end (considering I had zero embroidery skills at the start of the project, that’s not really very hard).  And the sleeves bring me joy. This may not look like very much to you but to me it is the pouffy sleeve of dreams (and of the late 1880s).

Authentic 1880s style

Authentic 1880s style – with a hint of my Mimi blouse by Tilly and the Buttons underneath

If I can persuade someone to take better pictures I’ll post better pictures soon. Once I’ve finished wrestling with the lining anyhow. At the moment, the lining looks like it’s making a mad dash for freedom. I had a mad idea of wearing it to the Roehampton graduation ceremony next week but I’m not sure if it’s going to happen…maybe the elves will finish it if I leave it out overnight?

Next Up: Vintage find of the week is this skirt kit.

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Yorkshire Fine Woollens & Tweeds Skirt Kit

That’s right, a skirt kit, complete with lining and a zip and its own little sew-in label.

It cost me the princely sum of eight English pounds in a charity shop in Putney.  It’s a thing of wonder – mostly wondering where the hell it came from.  I haven’t been able to find out when Yorkshire Fine Woollens & Tweeds were producing these sort of kits or if there was a wide range of them.  There’s no company trading under that name now so I’ll have to do a but more investigating.  If anyone has any leads on skirt kits, please let me know!

This is definitely going to become a skirt though – I’m thinking a sort of Miss Jean Brodie style thing. The kind of skirt you can wear on a sit-up-and-beg bicycle with a basket of fresh bread and terriers on the front. Or the kind of skirt that you wear with thick boots and a scowl.

This past month, I’ve been taking part in a Terry Pratchett themed swap organised by Louise Hunt of Caithness Craft Collective and I’ve been busy getting a little package together for my swap partner.  I like listening to podcasts and audiobooks but I find I can’t use the sewing machine if I want to listen at the same time.[1] So over the last few weeks I’ve been doing a fair bit of knitting too – well, designing really. I’ve designed my first ever lace shawl.

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Blocking the shawl…

I’m ridiculously pleased with myself about this – it brings elements of Estonian lace and English mesh lace together and it’s inspired by…well, I can’t reveal that just yet.  This is just a sneaky peek after all. I’m in the process of writing up my scrawls into an actual pattern that I will publish on this blog soon.

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[1] My friend Jess once said my sewing machine makes a sound like a drunk person rearranging furniture – there might be something wrong with it but then again it’s ALWAYS made that noise so it might be OK.

All Things Alice: What has she got in her pockets?

Everyone’s gone Alice mad! It’s been 150 years since Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first published.  And on Saturday July 4th it’s Alice’s Day in Oxford. In honour of this frabjous occasion I’m doing a series of posts about all things Alice…

“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “to talk of many things:

Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —

of cabbages — and kings –“

I’ve always loved the story of the Walrus and the Carpenter. It was funny and sad and appealed to a sense of what I now know is called Schadenfreude – the gleeful delight in someone else’s misery (in this case, the oysters).  Now that I’ve started researching material culture in children’s literature the litany of objects “shoes, and ships, and sealing-wax” is fascinating all over again.

There are a lot of objects mentioned in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – from the jam jar she finds as she falls down the rabbit hole to the gloves the White Rabbit sends her to fetch.  But of all the things in the story, I find Alice’s thimble the most intriguing.

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At the end of the Caucus Race, Alice is tasked with given out the prizes. She has a box of comfits and a thimble in her pocket (the only items she carries from the real world into Wonderland). She gives each of the creatures a comfit and she is awarded the thimble:

“At last the Dodo said, ‘Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.’

But who is to give the prizes?’ quite a chorus of voices asked.

‘Why, she, of course,’ said the Dodo, pointing to Alice with one finger; and the whole party at once crowded round her, calling out in a confused way, ‘Prizes! Prizes!’

Alice had no idea what to do, and in despair she put her hand in her pocket, and pulled out a box of comfits, (luckily the salt water had not got into it), and handed them round as prizes. There was exactly one a-piece all round.

‘But she must have a prize herself, you know,’ said the Mouse.

‘Of course,’ the Dodo replied very gravely. ‘What else have you got in your pocket?’ he went on, turning to Alice.

‘Only a thimble,’ said Alice sadly.

‘Hand it over here,’ said the Dodo.

Then they all crowded round her once more, while the Dodo solemnly presented the thimble, saying ‘We beg your acceptance of this elegant thimble’; and, when it had finished this short speech, they all cheered.

Alice thought the whole thing very absurd, but they all looked so grave that she did not dare to laugh; and, as she could not think of anything to say, she simply bowed, and took the thimble, looking as solemn as she could.”

Lewis Carroll Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)

But what is Alice doing with a thimble? Unless Alice has stolen it – and let’s assume she hasn’t because nothing in the text suggests it – we must conclude that this is indeed her thimble.

Perhaps it isn’t really surprising that Alice has a thimble. After all, in the 19th century girls were taught to sew at a very young age. Asa Briggs notes that 19th century manufactures made thimbles especially for children and that thimbles could even be considered toys for little girls.[1]

Needlework – both plain and fancy was a key element of a Victorian girl’s education. Children’s homes and orphanages focused on teaching needlework with the expectation that whether the children gained employment in private homes or in factories, needlework was an essential skill.

The V&A’s collection includes a number of samplers produced by working-class and middle-class children.

The sampler was the way to practice techniques and to show off the sewist’s repertoire, showing ‘samples’ of each stitch.

Samplers were also a way of inculcating ‘feminine’ virtues in the young girl – the patience and attention to detail needed to produce a sampler were cultivated through the production of samplers. Many samplers include images of houses and gardens – ensuring a clear focus on the virtues of domesticity and the centrality of domestic life. Many other samplers, like the ones shown below, include didactic or moral verses that celebrate hard work, self-sacrifice, loyalty, diligence, piety, grace and, often, silence.

But not all girls willingly parroted these verses. Some, like Elizabeth Parker, used their needles to record their true feelings.

Detail of sampler, Elizabeth Parker, after 1830. Museum no. T.6-1956

Detail of sampler, Elizabeth Parker, after 1830. Museum no. T.6-1956 “As I cannot write I put this down simply and freely…”

As Rozsika Parker argues, in The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine the sampler can become a site of subversion, of rebellion and self-determination.

There is no mention of sewing or samplers in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Alice does absolutely no needlework at all and when she picks up knitting-needles in Through the Looking-Glass they turn into oars in her hands.

However, Carroll does make reference to a moral verse: Isaac Watt’s insipid “How doth the little Busy bee” which is exactly the kind of thing that young girls were encouraged to stitch into their samplers.

Here’s the original:

How doth the little busy Bee 
     Improve each shining Hour, 
And gather Honey all the day 
     From every opening Flower!

How skilfully she builds her Cell! 
     How neat she spreads the Wax! 
And labours hard to store it well 
     With the sweet Food she makes.

In Works of Labour or of Skill 
     I would be busy too:
For Satan finds some Mischief still 
     For idle Hands to do.

In Books, or Work, or healthful Play 
     Let my first Years be past, 
That I may give for every Day
     Some good Account at last.

And Carroll’s gleeful, subversive parody:

How doth the little crocodile

Improve his shining tail,

And pour the waters of the Nile

On every golden scale!

 

‘How cheerfully he seems to grin,

How neatly spread his claws,

And welcome little fishes in

With gently smiling jaws!’

I have never really thought about producing a sampler. I don’t think I have the patience necessary. If I ever do, I think I will stitch Carroll’s “How doth the little Crocodile”…

Nevertheless, I have been practicing my embroidery lately because I’m embroidering the collar and lapels of the Victorian Walking Jacket

Next week will bring updates on the jacket and other works in progress…

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You can find the first post in my series of All Things Alice here – the second, all about tea in Alice here – and the third, all about Alice’s Day right here.

If you want to find out more about Victorian needlework, Caulfield and Saward’s Dictionary of Needlework gives you an idea of the range of needlework produced by the home-crafter in the 19th century.  Flora Klickmann’s The Little Girl’s Sewing Book (though published in 1915) is a good indication of how little girls were taught to sew and what kind of things they were encouraged to make (aprons and boxes for ribbons and pukey cushion covers with lambs on them)

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Check out the V&A’s collection of samplers here

[1] Asa Briggs, Victorian Things (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1990), p.209.