As well as the Austen coverlet, the museum has a second nineteenth century quilt in their collection. This red and white patchwork could, until last month, be found on the cabin bed in the Admirals’ Room. The bed was used by Admiral Sir Francis Austen when sailing, as it was easy to take apart and put together when changing ship. It was originally on display without a cover but the decision was made to dress the bed and in 2014 the red and white patchwork below was sourced with the help Republica Warehouse.
Admiral Sir Francis William Austen, 1774 – 1865, was Jane’s fifth brother and one year older than her. He went into the navy aged just 12 and through his long career rose up the ranks to eventually become Admiral of the Fleet. After the death of their father in 1805, Jane lived with Francis’ wife Mary in Southampton, along with Mrs Austen, Cassandra and their friend Martha Lloyd until the women moved to Chawton Cottage in 1809. In 1823 Mary died after the birth of their 11th child. Five years later Francis and Martha married, so his story is very much linked with Chawton. He wasn’t Jane’s only brother in the navy, Charles, the youngest brother became a Rear-Admiral and both would have provided inspiration for Jane’s characters in Mansfield Park and Persuasion.
This piece of patchwork, for it has no quilting or backing is believed to date from 1840 - 1850 and is thought to have been pieced by a sailor. It would have been fairly common for some sailors to be proficient stitchers as the skills would have been needed to repair clothing and sails when on long journeys. Only four fabrics are used, two red and two white and, just like the Austen coverlet, they are symmetrical across the quilt top, something that shows that thought and planning has gone into the design of the piece. The video at the bottom of this post shows the red and white squared border that runs around the patchwork and shows that although not backed, the stitching was finished.
It has been constructed using a running stitch, which can be clearly seen on the back. The design is interesting: at first I thought the centre was made up for four blocks on-point, but on closer inspection it has been made by sewing triangles into rectangles to create rows. At some stage I would like to do an outline drawing of the patches as the combination of shapes are interesting and it would be interesting to see the geometric layout.
The patchwork does not lay flat, the reason for which is shown on the back as some pieces have wide seam allowance and others narrow, which shows the stitch line was not marked and it has been pieced by eye (and maybe on a rocking ship!). In some areas of wider seam allowance, it looks as if the shape has been cut near the edge of the fabric and the selvedge left on, however this is something I have noticed while writing this post and would need another look at the patchwork to confirm.
The edge is finished with a machine sewn binding added later maybe to make it more durable. It has also had some machine repairs along some seams. It is in fairly good condition, and I am pleased that the red does not appear to have run. Whether this means it was made and not used and so not washed I am not sure, but apart from aging, the colours look crisp.