Tag Archives: Claire Tomalin

How to embroider

The education of young girls was neither reliable nor consistent in the early 19th century, and the same might be said of the education of Jane Austen. Claire Tomalin’s “Jane Austen: A Life” biography describes not only the schools Jane and her sister attended but also a few other examples of schools ranging in quality from well rounded to worthy of the gothic novels parodied in “Northanger Abbey.” Many girls did not go to school and learned at home instead. Yet regardless of where and how they obtained their education, young girls were expected to learn the skills that would help them to maintain their homes as grown women. One of those skills was the ability to sew, and in the days before sewing machines everything was sewn by hand.

“Girls School” by Jan Josef Horemans the Younger, 18th Century

In “Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels,” Deirdre Le Faye describes how girls would create samplers and cross-stitch patterns to demonstrate their stitching skills that would later be used for larger projects. She also says embroidery continued to be a popular pastime on rainy days for middle- to upper-class families. Mrs. Norris scolds Fanny in “Mansfield Park” for not better applying her time to such projects when she says: “Why cannot you come and sit here, and employ yourself as we do? If you have no work of your own, I can supply you from the poor basket.”

Thankfully Mrs. Norris is not here to nag us about how we spend our time. Instead, let us imagine that Jane herself is wishing to join us as she did with her sister in 1808 when she wrote: “I wish I could help you in your needlework, I have two hands & a new thimble that lead a very easy life.” If you have ever wanted to learn how to embroider, here are a few basic techniques.

You will need:

  • A bit of fabric (I use linen in this example)
  • An embroidery hoop
  • Embroidery threads (I use crewel, which is a fancy way to say “wool”)
  • Needle
  • Needle threader (optional – if the eye of your needle is big enough, you may not need a threader)

You could also hold the hoop this way, if you choose. This style is called “in the well.”

As you can see, the tapestry needle has a wide enough eye that I do not need a threader. The so called “embroidery needles” are very small and are designed for a fine cotton thread or beading work. If you are choosing to use this type of needle and thread, you will need to use a threader.

Once the thread is in the needle, leave one tail of the thread longer than the other. You do not need to knot the end.

Let’s learn three basic stitches:

First to learn is the Back Stitch.

You begin from underneath the fabric.

Then pull the needle through.

Keep pulling until there is only one thread going through the fabric.

Leave just a little bit behind. Here is what it looks like from the back.

This is the beginning of any embroidery stitch. For the back stitch, you will be moving along a line. Move the needle in the direction you wish to go and point it back to the first stitch.

Notice I am placing the needle below the other thread. You could do above the thread instead so long as you are consistent in every stitch. Pull the needle through and stop before the thread becomes taught.

Then, do the same thing. Move the thread further down the line you wish to make and point it back to the last stitch.

Continue in this fashion

After a while you will have a lot of little stitches creating a line.

Second to learn is the French Knot.

Again, we begin the stitch from underneath. This time we will place the needle close to where the thread comes out.

Then, wrap the thread around the needle once.


Three times. Then close to the hole where the thread comes out we will push the needle in through the fabric and gently pull it through.

Here are a few French Knots together.

The final stitch here is the Satin Stitch.

If you are left-handed, you may find it easier to go from the other direction but as I am right-handed, I begin the stitch on the far left side of the area I wish to fill.

Then I will push the needle in to the fabric on the far right side of the area I wish to fill. When I do this I will be poking the needle out just above where the first stitch came out and pulling the needle out from above the fabric.

These stitches will fill a small area.

If you wish to fill a larger area, you can do so with overlapping the smaller satin stitches because if you make it too big, it will not keep its shape well.

Confused by these instructions? Here is a quick instructional video to demonstrate the exact same stitches.

Now that we have learned some basic stitches, we need a project! A new book is coming out in May (March for the UK) full of project ideas based on 18th-century embroidery by Jennie Batchelor and Alison Larkin called “Jane Austen Embroidery” (from Dover Publications).

In the meanwhile, however, I free-handed a design based upon a shawl attributed to Jane Austen herself. You can see an image of the original here.

Here I have drawn the stars in pencil. I will be using satin stitches and French knots.

After a little bit of progress……

A close up of a French knot in progress:

Here is the completed hoop.

I needed something in the middle so I drew a silhouette of Jane Austen based on an image search online and filled it in with black satin stitches.

Hope you enjoyed this miniature lesson on basic embroidery stitches!

For your viewing pleasure: Movies and shows set in the Georgian and Regency eras

'The Duchess,' 'The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister,' and the 'Poldark' series are examples of movies and shows set in the Georgian and Regency eras.
From left: Keira Knightley in “The Duchess,” and Anna Madeley and Maxine Peake in “The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister,” and Aidan Turner in the “Poldark” series.

Film adaptations of Jane Austen’s works may be our favorite movies set in the Regency era, but there is a vast array of others set in or around that same period that merit attention as well.

For this list, we look at a few TV shows and movies set in the Georgian era, from 1770 onward (since Austen was born in 1775) and primarily set in England.

‘The Duchess’ (1770s)

Released in 2009, this biopic stars Keira Knightley as the titular Duchess of Devonshire and follows her rocky marriage to her husband, played by Ralph Fiennes. Available for streaming on Netflix.

Natalie Dormer plays "The Scandalous Lady W."
Natalie Dormer plays the titular “Scandalous Lady W.”

‘The Scandalous Lady W’ (1770s-1780s)

Another unhappy marriage leading to scandal: This 2015 mini-series stars Natalie Dormer as Lady Seymour Worsley, who leaves her awful husband for his friend. Based on the true story of Lady Worsley and Hallie Rubenhold’s nonfiction book, “Lady Worsley’s Whim.”

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in 'Belle.'
Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Dido Elizabeth Belle in “Belle.”

‘Belle’ (1780s)

Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) was a real person: the illegitimate, mixed-race daughter of a captain in the Royal Navy. His uncle, Lord Mansfield, raises Dido alongside another great-niece. The 2013 film partly follows the landmark case Lord Mansfield rules on, which is seen to contribute to the abolition movement. Available for rent on multiple streaming platforms.

‘Poldark’ (1783-1801)

There have been multiple adaptations of these historical novels by Winston Graham, the most recent of which started airing in 2015 and recently ended with its fifth season. Ross Poldark, upon returning to Cornwall from fighting in the American Revolutionary War, finds a very different place — his sweetheart having married his cousin. Drama ensues. Available on Amazon Prime (1996, 2015-) or Acorn TV (1977-).

Nigel Hawthorne and Helen Mirren in “The Madness of King George.”

‘The Madness of King George’ (1788)

In this 1994 movie, Nigel Hawthorne plays King George III, whose mental health declined dramatically in his latter years. Those closest to him have to try to prevent his political enemies, including his own son (played by Rupert Everett), from usurping his power. Helen Mirren also stars. Available for streaming on VUDU or rent on other streaming platforms.

‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ (1792)

Another entry with multiple adaptations, including one released in 1982 with “Austenland” alumna Jane Seymour: The novels feature an English nobleman, Sir Percy Blackeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel, helping French aristocrats escape the guillotine in France. The 1934 version is available for streaming on Amazon Prime; the 1982 version on Acorn TV.

‘A Royal Scandal’ (1795)

This short 1997 movie almost feels like a docu-drama, complete with voice-over narration. Richard E. Grant (who also happened to play the titular hero in a 1999 “Scarlet Pimpernel” mini-series) plays the Prince Regent, who has just married Caroline of Brunswick. The movie follows their disastrous marriage, a common theme apparently. Of Caroline, Austen said: “Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband.” Sisterhood! Available on Amazon Prime.

Olivia Cooke and Tom Bateman play Becky Sharp and Rawdon Crawley in the latest adaptation of “Vanity Fair.”

‘Vanity Fair’ (1800s)

William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel has been adapted at least a dozen times on the small and silver screens. The story’s heroine (or anti-heroine?) is Becky Sharp (played on the big screen by Reese Witherspoon in the Mira Nair-directed 2004 movie), an unapologetic social climber and heartbreaker. The 2018 version is available for streaming on Amazon Prime; the 2004 version on various other streaming platforms.

‘Mary Shelley’ (1815)

One of the more recent entries, this 2017 film depicts Mary Wollstonecraft’s elopement with Percy Bysshe Shelley and the writing of her magnus opus, “Frankenstein.” The film stars Elle Fanning as Mary. Available for purchase on Amazon Prime; for streaming on various other platforms.

‘Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister’ (1815 -)

Based on the diaries that Anne Lister wrote partly in code, this BBC movie, released about 10 years before HBO’s 2019 series “Gentleman Jack,” covers a larger period of her life and starts in 1815 (as seen in her writing a diary entry and the Regency clothes). What is perhaps especially notable about her diaries is the account of her relationships with women. Available for purchase on Amazon Prime.

Abby Cornish and Ben Wishaw play Fanny Brawne and poet John Keats in "Bright Star."
Abby Cornish and Ben Wishaw play Fanny Brawne and poet John Keats in “Bright Star.”

‘Bright Star’ (1818)

Another movie about writers: “Bright Star,” written and directed by Jane Campion and released in 2009, is about the tragic love story between poet John Keats (played by Ben Wishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish).

Peterloo (1818)

Director Mike Leigh’s two-and-a-half hour epic released last year depicts the Peterloo massacre — Peterloo is a portmanteau of St. Peter’s Field and Waterloo — when the cavalry descended on tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators demanding parliamentary reform. Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

The cavalry charges on the demonstrators in “Peterloo.”

Food, Regency style

Keira Knightley and Tom Hollander in 'Pride and Prejudice.'
Despite the tempting spread before her, Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley) will soon lose her appetite thanks to Mr. Collins’ (Tom Hollander) clumsy proposal.

Keto, paleo, low-carb, no-carb, low-fat, gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian. … What would Jane Austen make of all our various diets and regimens? Not to mention all the prepackaged, processed food nutritionists tell us to avoid by sticking to the margins of grocery stores?

Food, in the Regency period, or indeed, any period before the modern era, tended to be more seasonal, fresher (since you couldn’t refrigerate or freeze things easily) and definitely less sweet, given how new sugar was to people’s palates and how expensive it was.

So what did they eat?

  • Meats we would recognize, such as beef, pork, fish and various fowl, but Georgians made full use of the animals, including beef tongue, cheeks, and tail (beef was so popular that it gave the French mockingly referred to the English as “les rosbifs,” i.e. the roast beefs).
  • Meats we tend not to eat much, especially game meat, such as hare, pigeon, partridge, and venison to name a few.
  • Vegetables and fruit, preferably from one’s garden, such as potatoes, berries, plums, and currants. Wealthier landowners, like the Darcy family in “Pride and Prejudice” could afford to keep hothouses and grow even more varieties, such as the grapes, peaches, and nectarines Elizabeth and her family are offered while visiting Pemberley.
  • Bread and pastries: no such thing as low-carb! But given the cost of sugar, pastries and cakes were more of a treat. Despite Mr. Woodhouse’s warning not to eat too much wedding cake in “Emma,” people still partook. Breakfast in particular relied on tea and bread (toast) and “muffins or hot rolls, with good butter,” according to American visitor Joshua White’s observations. At great houses, breakfasts could be grander affairs, with plum cake, pound cake, varieties of rolls, tea, coffee or hot chocolate.


As mentioned above, freezing food was no small feat. Before the advent of electricity and refrigerators, people had to rely on blocks of ice to keep food cold. And with that, rooms to keep the blocks of ice cold. Not everyone could afford that kind of space, but it could be done, and ice cream became popular in the late 18th century. Jane Austen wrote to Cassandra about her stay at her rich brother Edward’s home where she could “eat Ice & drink French wine, & be above Vulgar Economy.” The Regency version of “Treat Yourself”!


Mealtimes as we know them were very different in the past, one main difference being the relative novelty of the lunch. In previous centuries, dinner was the main meal of the day and eaten much earlier than it is now (in 1789, Jane Austen would dine at 3:30 p.m.). As dinner moved to a later time (about 5 p.m.), it became necessary to have a bit of a snack between breakfast and dinner, hence lunch. Supper was later still, eaten after one returned from the theater or opera or other late-night entertainment.

Lydia Bennet saying 'Lord I'm so hungry!'
Eternal mood.


Since Thanksgiving is next week in our corner of the world, we couldn’t let you go without letting you in on this: the over-the-top turducken feast (a turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken) is neither new nor is it the most extravagant sort. From the Jane Austen Centre’s post on the Yorkshire Christmas Roast: “In his 1807 Almanach des Gourmands, gastronomist Grimod de La Reynière presents his rôti sans pareil (“roast without equal”)—a bustard stuffed with a turkey, a goose, a pheasant, a chicken, a duck, a guinea fowl, a teal, a woodcock, a partridge, a plover, a lapwing, a quail, a thrush, a lark, an ortolan bunting and a garden warbler.” Now pass the Tums!

Cheers for drinks

Although Jane Austen perhaps did not have access to the variety of microbreweries of our time, she did have plenty to choose from. Fortified wines – such as sherry, madeira, port – and cordial waters (liqueurs) were popular, and punch recipes were varied and mouthwatering. Wine and cordial waters were often used for medicinal purposes, however misguided, such as when Elinor brings her ill sister Marianne some wine in “Sense and Sensibility.”

Sources: Jane Austen’s novels, “Jane Austen’s Letters” by Deirdre Le Faye, “Tea With Jane Austen” by Kim Wilson, “The Jane Austen Diet: Austen’s Secrets to Food, Health, and Incandescent Happiness” by Bryan Kozlowski, Jane Austen’s World, the Jane Austen Centre

Other Resources

Here’s a selection of additional resources you might want to peruse, including recipes you can try.

On the Web

Books on Regency food

  • “Dinner With Mr. Darcy: Recipes Inspired by the Novels of Jane Austen” by Pen Vogler
  • “The Jane Austen Cookbook” by Maggie Black
  • “Cooking With Jane Austen (Feasting with Fiction)” by Kirstin Olsen
  • “The Housekeeping Book” of Susanna Whatman
  • “Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy”
  • “Gin Austen: 50 Cocktails to Celebrate the Novels of Jane Austen” by Colleen Mullaney

All books are available on Amazon.com. Support JASP through smile.amazon.com.
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