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Posts Tagged ‘Women’s work’

Can you imagine Jane Austen at her spinning wheel? We will soon have the possibility of seeing the Austen family’s spinning wheel at Chawton Cottage after its restoration. My sense is that it was highly unlikely that Jane Austen herself spent much time using it for spinning.

A lady spinning at her wheel, after Wm Bunbury, 1781. Image @Grosvenor Prints*

She wrote in a letter from Chawton dated Friday, May 31, 1811 to Cassandra, who was staying at Godmersham Park:

I have taken your hint, slight as it was, and have written to Mrs. Knight, and most sincerely do I hope it will not be in vain. I cannot endure the idea of her giving away her own wheel, and have told her no more than the truth, in saying that I could never use it with comfort. I had a great mind to add that, if she persisted in giving it, I would spin nothing with it but a rope to hang myself, but I was afraid of making it appear a less serious matter of feeling that it really is.

Jane’s wit and humor came to the fore, and she used it to good effect to show how little such a gift would mean to her. Mrs. Knight eventually died and biographer, David Nokes, writes:

There came news from Kent of the sad death of Mrs. Knight. The old lady left a donation of £20 to be distributed among the poor of Chawton parish, but Jane was relieved to find there was no mention of the spinning-wheel.  – David Nokes, Jane Austen: A Life, p. 392

Cottage woman at work on her spinning wheel. Burnett

And so Jane was saved from the burden of spinning. Many of  her female friends and relations enjoyed the pasttime. Her nephew, Edward Austen-Leigh, wrote in his memoir:

With regard to the mistresses, it is, I believe, generally understood, that at the time to which I refer, a hundred years ago, they took a personal part in the higher branches of cookery, as well as in the concoction of home-made wines, and distilling of herbs for domestic medicines, which are nearly allied to the same art. Ladies did not disdain to spin the thread of which the household linen was woven. Some ladies liked to wash with their own hands their choice china after breakfast or tea. In one of my earliest child’s books, a little girl, the daughter of a gentleman, is taught by her mother to make her own bed before leaving her chamber. It was not so much that they had not servants to do all these things for them, as that they took an interest in such occupations. – Edward Austen Leigh, A Memoir of Jane Austen, p 37

Spinning was popular with ladies all over Europe. Late 19th c. painting by German artist Mihaly Munkacsy

It is quite likely that the thread used for the lace on Mrs. Hurst’s gown in Pride and Prejudice (over which Mrs. Bennet exclaims) was spun by the lady who made it. In those days, ladies of the highest order spun yarn used for embroidery or lace making. They gathered in small groups to spin wool and wile away the time as they gossiped or engaged in pleasant conversation. Jane Austen notes on January 14, 1796 that “Anna is now here; she came up in her chaise to spend the day with her young cousins, but she does not much take to them or to anything about them, except Caroline’s spinning-wheel.”

The unlikely accomplishment of spinning had been a social skill practiced at the highest levels of society, probably because the parlor spinning wheels which the socially prominent operated were beautifully wrought and highly decorative. (In Jane Austen’s letters, we find Austen commenting to her sister regarding a proposed gift of a spinning-wheel, which she refuses because of the sense of identification of the fine tools of women’s work with their owners [Selwyn 68].)  Further, a woman’s ability to create a smooth sewing thread was considered a remarkable accomplishment; – Susan E. Jones, Thread-cases, Pin-cushions, and Card-racks: Women’s Work in the City in Jane Austen’s Persuasion

Fashionable ladies most likely did not bother to do the hard work of cleaning, sorting, dyeing, carding, and greasing yarn in preparing the wool for the spinning wheel. Instead, they performed the lighter tasks of spinning the wool yarn into a finer thread.

In a recent BBC Radio 4 interview, Val and David Bryant discussed the very special “Planta” wheel owned by the Austen family. Val is an expert on the history of spinning wheels and her husband is a spinning wheel restorer. The couple spoke about their remarkable acquisition, which is being restored in Chesire.

Austen family "Planta" spinning wheel in the shape of a table, with Sheraton style legs and a drawer. Image @BBC Radio 4

The spinning wheel once owned by the Austens is a beautiful and rare specimen made like a piece of furniture. It looks like a little table with Sheraton-style legs and had a little drawer. Its maker, John Planta (c. 1798-1824), was a craftsman from Fulneck, Yorkshire near Leeds. His specialty was to produce high quality spinning wheels in a unique Sheraton style.

This spinning wheel resembles the fine drawing room models that were designed for ladies who spun for pleasure: It is a world away from ordinary spinning wheels destined for the cottage industry.  The Bryants speculated that this elegant spinning wheel was a “must-have” gadget for its day. They were becoming so fashionable and desirable, that some were embellished with inlays and finials. The Austen’s spinning wheel is remarkable in that it still has the original instructions on how to use it.

Victorian photograph of a cottage woman at her spinning wheel, 1850. Image @Daily Mail

The Austen family spinning-wheel is currently missing a treadle and footman that drives the crank, and it needs a new pulley. It also squeaks. Once it is restored, it will go on display in Chawton Cottage for all the visitors to see! I’ll keep you posted.

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