Jane Austen’s books were a close ally in my teenage years, and every couple of years I pick them up and read them again. I did not know that much about her apart from the obvious facts; she lived in Hampshire, died young and never married. So, I was thrilled to be told my first two days were to be spent doing research to get to know Jane’s world.
I had visited the house once before in the middle of the day when it was buzzing with visitors, but my first day as quilt designer had a very different feel as Lucy and I were the first ones to arrive at the house. It was a crisp but bright spring day and the village had a slightly magical look as if it were waking up from winter. We started the day with a quick cup of tea before meeting Jen, then Collections Trainee, who guided Lucy and I around the house.
My notebook was soon full of ideas, from the pianoforte, to the Topaz Crosses. It was also my first introduction to the Austen coverlet. I had seen it in books, but never in person and, as always with textiles, it was so different to the photographs. It is large, and the display means it is possible to take a delightfully close look at the stitching, fabric designs and how it has worn over the last 200 years. Alongside the coverlet, there were other stitch highlights such as the exquisitely embroidered muslin shawl said to be stitched by Jane, and a needle case that she made for Louisa Knight, her niece. It was lovely to get the feel of sewing being an important part of Jane’s life and gave me an understanding the community quilt is not just a stand-alone object, but completely intertwined with Jane Austen.
After another cup of tea (this project is powered by tea and vast quantities of cake) we went to the collection store. Jen explained that Jane Austen’s books would have been bought unbound, so the buyer could arrange for it to be bound in the style of their library. Thinking of great libraries, it seemed so obvious, but not something I had ever heard of before. One of the collection highlights was Martha Lloyd’s Recipe book. A lifelong friend of Jane's and this fascinating book contains recipes as well as remedies for ailments such as a toothache. As well as the content, it is a beautiful object. Written to be functional, not something on show, it feels like to true peek behind the scenes.
The following week I spent the morning with Sue Dell, authority on the Austen coverlet. A keen quilt maker, she has spent years researching it, and has travelled widely to share her research.
There are two things I noticed straight away. The first is that the sashing is made from smaller pieces sewn together, and the second is that the placement of the fabrics is symmetrical. The latter kept me enthralled for ages, you look at one side of the coverlet, then move your eye across the other to see its pair. Sue told me there are over 2700 patches, many of which are fussy cut. It is intriguing to look at, but as a quilt maker I also know that to make a plan for a large quilt and rigidly stick to it is impressive.
Over a cup of tea Sue showed me photographs of how the quilt had been previously displayed, from hanging on a curtain rail on a wall, to flat on a bed. The photographs of the back of the quilt were interesting as you can see how vivid the colours are - much more than I thought they would be. I was fascinated by the different estimates of how large the quilt is. Over the years a number of people have measured it, but no one seems to quite agree how big it actually is. The angles used also interesting, 70 and 110 degrees, as opposed to 30, 45 and 90 which are mainly used in modern quilt making. Sue said that everyone who works at the museum has their special object, the one they would save in an emergency, and the coverlet is the one she would be taking out under her arm!
In the afternoon we walked up to Chawton House Library. Chawton House was owned by Jane’s brother Edward, with the cottage where Jane, Cassandra and their mother lived originally the estate’s baliffs cottage. Known as Chawton House Library, its official role is as The Centre for the Study of Early Women’s Writing, 1600-1830. The first view of the house is impressive, and halfway up the path towards the front door is Chawton Church, where Cassandra and Mrs Austen are buried.
There is lots to inspire a quilter, including the windows painted with the crests of families who have lived in the house and the graphic floor tiles in the hall. Librarian, Dr Darren Bevin showed us around the reading rooms. If they say a book is a door into another world, then this house can take you on tens of thousands of adventures, although, possibly, my favourite feature of the library way the hidden drinks cabinet. As we were focussing on Jane we looked at books that she would have read, or was known to have read. For example, we saw her name in the list of subscribers of one of Fanny Burney’s novels, and looked at the library copy of Mary Bunton’s Self Control, - a book that Jane is known to have read as she mentions it in her letters. I enjoyed hearing about the female authors who inspired Jane, or were her contemporaries and left with a long list of books to read, including Evelina and The History of Betsy Thoughtless.
The house is situated in a large park, and so we couldn’t leave without going for a walk around the grounds, and we ended up at the walled garden. I later learnt that Edward Austen, Jane’s brother, had built the walled garden and although Jane referred to it in her letters she died before it was completed. It was toward the end of the day, and so quiet, and was the perfect place to get some fresh air and talk about what we had seen in the house, and what we needed to do next to get the project moving.