Those who were handy with a needle and thread in days gone by, had a job for life. The ladies of the house learnt to do embroidery, and endlessly stitched alphabet samplers and cushion covers, or sewed initials into the corner of a handkerchief and embellished table linen. Seamstresses kept those ladies in the best of fashionable attire. Lace makers, like Brigid The Girl from County Clare, created the adornments, and maids made sure nary a rip nor tear would be seen.
Through the centuries, skilled needleworkers were prized employees, well paid and highly respected. Many clever seamstresses owned their own establishment where society ladies chose to be seen. Needlework was both a form of education for the girls, and entertainment for idle hands, and viewed as a requisite accomplishment.
As time passed, modern inventions took over the role of the humble needle and the sewing machine was invented. Early designs were intended to aid the saddler, the upholsterer, and canvas maker, some were lost to missed patent lodgements and others to legal tussles. But by the 1850s, the Singer sewing machine began to change the way clothing was created. The turn of the 20th century, saw the rise of Department Stores, and factories, with mass produced clothing and household items. As the decades passed, homemade became the norm. Housewives decorated their homes, and dressed themselves and their families in hand-made items. I was one of those women, sewing for my home and family until the turn of the 21st century. My first grandchild’s christening gown was the last item I made from scratch (she’s about to turn 21).
Jump forward to today, and very few people are seen with a needle in hand, other than by a group of stalwart hobbyists who stitch for pleasure. It is one of the noticeable changes to the way life was then and now.
The textile and import industries have changed the way we buy. Behind the scenes, people are still operating machinery that has essentially remained the same (with modern upgrades), to create the required items. No longer do they work for select clients in need of individual style and glamour as in Georgian to Edwardian times, in fashion houses such as the House of Worth (founded 1858) and the thoroughly ‘modern’ House of Chanel (founded in 1910). Today, it’s about quantity above quality.
In another life (through the 1970s to 1990s), I was a needleworker. I ran a retail store selling embroidery supplies, tapestry, silks, and wool. I taught needlework, and was invited to judge competitions. I never learnt to make lace like my character Brigid, but I’ve admired Irish and Venetian lace and own some beautiful pieces. I adorned my linens with crochet and fine embroidery and stitched pictures for the walls. I knitted and stitched, crocheted, and embroidered, worked tapestry, and hooked rugs. I learnt the crafts and mastered the ones I enjoyed most.
While some of what I stitched – either by hand or with the aid of a sewing machine – was done for pleasure, much was done from necessity. Before the advent of cheap imported clothing which has allowed us all to dress more casually, there was reward in creating fashionable and affordable every-day clothing, evening wear, and later, ballgowns for a fussy teen.
These days, my creative instincts are directed at writing, and while researching for the facts, I often find myself getting nostalgic – not for the lack of modern conveniences or the horrendous sanitary conditions – but for the quality and workmanship of the past. Whether you were poor or rich, things were made to last, and handed down from generation to generation. Furniture made from beautiful wood with style and function, fabrics made from natural products that stood the test of time, and an appreciation for the skill of the person who made it.
I have a love for all things vintage: photographs, lace, furniture, fashions that were feminine and elegant. Many of my characters has a unique skill: Gwenna, the sweet maker, and her jealous step-brother who finds solace in woodworking (Gwenna the Welsh Confectioner). Brigid the lacemaker (Brigid The Girl from County Clare). Charlotte the writer and rose-grower (The Art of Secrets). Jane, the costumier and Katie, the photographer (The Costumier’s Gift). Matteo the picture framer, and Luciano the portrait artist (Portrait of a Man). The farmer, the pastry chef, the dressmaker, the weaver, they all hold a special place in my mind.
That love of all things vintage, hand-made, and long-lasting is what drew me to writing historical fiction. I hope you enjoy the stories.