There was a great deal of needlework to be done, moreover, in which her help was wanted.Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, p. 76
Gently-born ladies of the Regency era seemed always to be out and about (especially as portrayed in books or movies), gone to card parties or balls or picnics, or going on long walks, or at the very least, welcoming visitors into their drawing rooms for a lively half hour at a time.
However, between the visits and the balls and parties, there were many hours in the day where these ladies would have been idle, had they not some sort of occupation to keep them busy. Remember that middle- and upper-class households employed servants to do all menial tasks (how awesome would that be?) such as laundry, ironing, dusting, cleaning, cooking, and any errands the ladies of the house did not wish to do. So what did those ladies DO with themselves in the dreary quiet hours?
Sewing and Embroidery
My dear Catherine, I do not know when poor Richard’s cravats would be done, if he had no friend but you.Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, p. 104
We often hear of a lady’s putting aside her embroidery or sewing in order to attend to a visitor, and the image I’ve always gotten was of a frilly little piece that, once framed, would join the rest of the frilly pieces lining the walls of the ancestral home. But more often than not, those sewing or embroidery projects were actually entirely useful; women regularly spent their leisure hours hemming shirts or cravats, sewing their own gowns (if they enjoyed it or couldn’t afford the services of a modiste), or embellishing various articles of clothing, like gowns, waistcoats, fichus, etc.
She taught me to knit, which has been a great amusement; and she put me in the way of making these little thread-cases, pin-cushions and card-racks, which you always find me so busy about, and which supply me with the means of doing a little good to one or two very poor families in this neighbourhood.Persuasion by Jane Austen, p. 69
Knitting, which was much the same then as it is now, was another essential skill for ladies, as the articles made were excessively useful: scarves, mittens, wrappers, shawls, socks, slippers, nightcaps, etc.
Miss Andrews is netting herself the sweetest cloak you can conceive.Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, p. 13
Netting is a much lesser-known needle art today, but it was just as common as knitting or sewing during the Regency. Considered by many to be one of the simplest forms of needlework, it still required specialized tools, as seen in the picture above. Netting had various applications, and took relatively little time to complete a project. It was similar to crochet, and involved creating a series of loops that could be enlarged or reduced and alternated to create patterns. Ladies netted purses, lace edgings, and even capelets (or cloaks).
Isabella Beeton’s Book of Needlework, which includes step-by-step instructions on netting, can be found online, for anyone curious enough to understand exactly what netting entails.
Her own time had been irreproachably spent during his absence: she had done a great deal of carpet-work, and made many yards of fringe.Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, p. 80
It seems that fringe was the chief end of knotting in the Regency, and it was used to edge anything from curtains to clothing to piano rugs. A fairly simple form of needlework, knotting could be done by the least accomplished lady, and even by men (not that they were unaccomplished), as evidenced in a letter from Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra, by a reference to their brother Frank knotting fringe while he was home on leave from the Navy, and ill.
According to the article, “How to make knotted fringe” on janeausten.co.uk, “Knotted fringe is actually quite easy to make and can be a lovely addition to any number of projects. The first thing you must decide is whether your project requires the addition of fringe or whether the fringe can be knotted from existing strands.” So fringe could be made independently and sewn onto something, or made from the fibers of the desired article, if they were of appropriate thickness and strength.
Knotting instructions can also be found online at http://knittingsitting.blogspot.com/.
Overall, gently-born ladies did have plenty of useful things to do with their time, even with servants doing so much–and this isn’t even the half of it! But that’s for another blog post…