Mary Lamb and needlework

I’ve been pretty quiet lately, I know.  This is partly because at the start of the month I fell from grace down a flight of stairs while holding a scalding cup of tea that put me out of crafting action for a bit.




It’s also partly because of the nature of academic terms – they tend to happen in short, intense bursts of teaching, marking, meetings and writing and, naturally, crafting takes a bit of a back seat.  I have been working on a couple of things but progress is slow and it feels like it’s taken months and months to get to the point where it’s even worth taking pictures.  So far this term I’ve made a cardigan

The pattern is Braid Hills by Kate Davies and the yarn is Shilasdair DK in Hawthorn.  I love the colour (none of these photos show the colour properly, it’s a semi-solid and veers between a deep blood red and a brighter berry colour) and while I found the cables a little fiddly at first I got the hang of it.  I’ll post more pictures once I’ve finished the second sleeve, had a chance to do some industrial blocking and found some buttons.

I’ve also make some socks…

these are in WYS sock yarn ‘bluetit’ which Karl is obsessed with at the moment.  He likes the first pair so much he has demanded a second pair. I’ve combined the WYS yarn with what I had leftover from the Balbriggan Harbour socks to make a nice stripey pair.  It’s a straightforward bit of bus-knitting to be honest but I like the effect. This is the first one…


Not a Balbriggan heel this time but just a simple short-row one


And while I’ve not been doing any designing lately I’ve made appointments with two archives – the Southlands materials archive in Roehampton University and *squee* the archives at Liberty’s of London.  So much of my research is about planning at the moment and organising trips to archives.  It can be tempting to just run in and start pulling out boxes of things but that can lead to ferret-shock (Helen explains this as the paralysis caused by overwhelming choices) and it’s better to be a crafty fox – suss out the place first and then steal inside to get one or two really useful things.   Like this guy:



Good research practice also means keeping in touch with other researchers who work on similar topics.  While I don’t deal with eighteenth century things or early nineteenth century things, the chance to attend an event on a children’s author who happened to have been a crafter is too good to pass on. So I’m looking forward to going to a study day on Mary Lamb organised by Felicity James from the University of Leicester on Saturday November 29th 2014.

Mary Lamb

Mary Lamb – owner of snazzy bonnets and some serious opinions about needlework

Mary Lamb is famous for two things, being her brother’s sister and for killing her mother.  She had a sad life.  After her father lost his job in 1792,  she became the principal earner in the household and made money by sewing mantuas and gowns.  She also cared for the family – her mother had had a stroke and her father suffered with dementia and her older brother John had been injured in a workplace accident.  By 1796 she began to show signs of mental illness. It got progressively worse and on the evening of September 21st 1796 she killed her mother.  Sarah Burton writes that:

Because the court considered Mary to be insane at the time of the murder, she was treated not as a criminal, but as a lunatic. After a period of confinement in a madhouse she was released into her younger brother’s custody on the understanding that he would be responsible for her proper care and confinement, when necessary, for the rest of his life. As far as was possible, Mary’s illness was kept a secret. When well, she was, as her friend Thomas Noon Talfourd explained, “remarkable for the sweetness of her disposition, the clearness of her understanding, and the gentle wisdom of all her acts and words”.

After their father’s death, her brother Charles took her home and they lived together in a ‘double singleness’ for the rest of their lives and occasionally wrote god-awful adaptations of Shakespeare’s stories for young readers.

The study day I’m attending next Saturday does not focus on Mary Lamb’s work on Shakespeare, nor on the (frequently sensationalized) details of her private life but on an essay she wrote in 1814 under the pseudonym Sempronia.

The essay “On Needlework” or “Needle-work and Intellectual Improvement are naturally in a State of Warfare” is a fascinating one.  It’s about craft, certainly, but also about rage.  The rage at finding craft disregarded and overlooked as a legitimate form of employment.  The rage at  seeing crafting treated as ‘leisure’ when, she rails, it was a kind of self-imposed slavery for her.   Lamb argues eloquently that needlework should be seen as work.  And the never-ending need to improve the home, to clothe its inmates and furnish its rooms prevents women from entering into other pursuits and improving their minds.

The study day is a bicentenary celebration of “On Needlework”.  Things have changed in the 200 years since Mary Lamb wrote her essay – the rise of cheap textiles and the emergence of a global textile trade, the arts and crafts movement, the late 20th and early 21st century resurgence of home craft, the new passion for sustainability have all affected, one way or another, our relationship with making and crafting.  But there’s still much to discuss – why do we think a hand-made suit should cost more than a hand-knitted item?  Why is crafting still associated with domesticity? (I’m not arguing that it should not be, I just wonder why…)What is the relationship between work (including needlework) and leisure?  And why is Lamb’s essay, which deals with feminism and economy at a time when they were seldom linked together, overshadowed by the mawkish adaptations of Shakespeare?

There’s a great line-up for the day with speakers from around the UK and it looks to be a very interesting day.  The full programme is here: Study_Day_Poster_2014 (2). There are tickets – only £5! – available and it’s on in central London.  If you’re interested, get in touch with Felicity James.

For those who can’t make it to London, I’ll give a full account soon!

 EDIT:  Just found a Facebook page for the event here and I should also put in the link for The Charles Lamb society here


2 thoughts on “Mary Lamb and needlework

  1. Your post raises all kinds of fascinating questions and topics–the sort of things I roll over in my brain and never really come to decisions or answers about. I’d love to be able to attend the study day you write of–I’ll depend on you to provide a good synopsis!

    • Thanks! There are so many questions – sometimes it can feel a little strange rootling in the past for answers but I’m hoping to find out a lot about 19th century needlework and attitudes to crafting. I’ll report back as much as I can.

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