A Story of Girls, Education, and Design

Dear Readers, I’ve been busy! I’m hurtling through my second semester of graduate school. It doesn’t leave me much time for blog writing, but occasionally I write something for school and think “that belongs up on Our Girl History!” This is one such essay, reflecting on a recent class trip to London and a lovely little book in the Winterthur Library collection. It’s a bit longer than my typical posts, but it comes with end-notes! Enjoy…

Baldwin’s Gardens, London, as it appears in 2018.

On a gray January morning I walked north, from the intersection of Gray’s Inn Road and a short street called Baldwin’s Gardens, in Holborn, London. I was headed towards my second stop of the day. In front of me a park blocked my path. A sign just inside the gate read “Coram’s Fields” and below that “no adults permitted, unless accompanied by a child.”

I turned to walk around this dedicated children’s space. As I circled the park, my destination came into view: the brick Georgian-style structure of the Foundling Museum. In front of it was a sculpture of Thomas Coram, creator of the Foundling Hospital, which opened on this site in 1741.[i] I was here to learn about the life of poor children in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century London, and to view some of the museum’s collection of tokens: small objects, often scraps of cloth, left by mothers to identify their offspring when they were given up to the hospital in hopes of a better life. Unlike the things my classmates and I had been viewing for the past few days, the objects on display at this museum would not be chased silver, inlayed mahogany, or brocaded silks. This was a place to explore material culture not from the top down, but from the bottom up. This seemed appropriate because although my reason for being in London was to study British design history, the object through which my study was focused was a small book made to teach poor early-nineteenth-century girls to sew and knit.

The Foundling Museum, London.

The textile tokens in the Foundling Museum’s collection, written about by John Styles in Threads of Feeling, were the perfect resource for learning about the needlework proficiency of Britain’s female poor. Styles notes that some tokens also display a distinct lack of aptitude.[ii] He cautions us not to take needlework skills for granted. I would like to echo Styles’ sentiment. As I have explored the 26 pages of Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting: as derived from the practice of the Central School, Baldwin’s Gardens, Gray’s Inn Lane, London, I have gained an appreciation for the many ways in which needlework is not to be underestimated. As Styles points out, we cannot assume that stitching is a universal skill. Rather it is one which was taught, and taught to girls both rich and poor, on both sides of the Atlantic. In general, these girls learned similar practical skills, but they might put them to work is very different ways as they went through life. Finally, the skills which were learned through needlework could be much richer and more expansive than simply putting needle to fabric.

In the early 1800’s, Baldwin’s Gardens, Gray’s Inn Lane, London, was the address of the National Society’s Central School. Here both boys and girls studied reading, writing, and at least some arithmetic; other lessons were divided by gender. [iii] Needlework was one of these. In 1829, the school published a book designed to help its teachers give instruction in this field. To supplement the sparse text, the book contained nine samples of sewing, embroidery, and knitting. Though the book is short, the samples both literally and figuratively flesh out its contents. When one picks up this volume in the Winterthur Library rare books room today, it has the strange three-dimensionality of a book stuffed with more than words. Flipping through the leaves, it becomes clear that its true lessons lie in the little girl’s miniature pinafore, the man’s shirt which when spread out is barely bigger than my hand, and the tiny knitted stocking, which might fit colonial Barbie, and must have been knit on needles almost too small to see.

The book is precious – the scale of its contents makes it quaint, but those contents also store an  invaluable body of information. Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting contains not only a curriculum, but also a hint at the sewn objects relevant to the lives of its students, and, in all likelihood, the products of their own hands, since it must almost certainly have been the students of the Central School who populated the copies of this book with its samples. John Styles reminds us that we cannot assume that every woman knew how to sew, but with this book, we can explore what many of them did know.  This curriculum is a chance to understand the potential needlework skills of a whole class of girls. However, it is even more broadly applicable than that. Many of the book’s lessons were also learned by wealthier girls, girls from other parts of England and in America, and girls of previous generations, and later ones – up to and including the present day.

There are other universals to be found in needlework as well. For example, in William Hogarth’s portrait of Captain Thomas Coram which hangs inside the Foundling Museum, the captain wears a voluminous red coat, shirt sleeves peeking out beneath its cuffs.[iv] Though painted almost a hundred years before the publication of Instructions on Needlework and Knitting, the visible collar and sleeves on Coram’s shirt resemble those of the quarter-scale sample garment. Shirts like this were worn by virtually every man, from philanthropist to pauper school boy, throughout the early modern era. Each shirt was sewn by someone, almost certainly a woman. Male students of the Baldwin’s Gardens school may well have had shirts provided by the school, where they were made by female students as part of their instruction.[v] These children’s mothers may have made shirts for the men of their families, or may have worked for wages sewing for others. More well-to-do women may too have sewn for their families, or they may have hired domestic help who were skilled with a needle, and then supervised their work. This type of needlework, known as plain sewing, and its products, such as men’s shirts, women’s shifts, baby clothes, and household linens, was omnipresent in this era. Though Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting contains directions for many of these, their form was also generally understood, and changed slowly over time. These textiles demonstrate a base level of design knowledge that was suffused throughout a culture. Though shirts were an essential part of the fashionable man’s wardrobe, they were just as essential to the humbly dressed. The sample shirt illustrates that an understanding of the design and manufacture of such a garment was not restricted to the trend-setters, but belonged collectively to society.

Quarter-scale sample shirt on page 12 of Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting.

Though the shirt sample appears at first glance to be almost perfect, it is hard not to take it with a grain of salt. Designed as a didactic rather than a true garment, does it really represent an accurate copy of an 1820’s shirt? As both a skilled needle worker and a lover of doll clothes myself, I was at first suspicious. However, when I flipped through Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting and unfolded this particular sample, I immediately thought of another shirt – this one full sized – that my class had seen the month before. This shirt was a new addition to Winterthur’s textile collection.[vi]  I was fairly confident that the two garments resembled each other closely. When I had a chance to compare them, I was glad to find that my memory had not failed me. With the book’s shirt-making directions for reference, I noticed the same seam techniques used on both.[vii] Both too shared a gathered front placket, buttonhole placement, and cuff style. Even the small triangular side-seam reinforcement appeared on the sample as a tiny sliver of linen. The only significant difference was the type of sleeve reinforcement applied to the two garments. The shirt in Winterthur’s collection has minimal provenance. While it seems unlikely that it was made by a poor London school girl, this book suggests that such a girl certainly could have made such a shirt.

The girls at the Central School did produce shirts, along with a wide range of other sewn goods. The final page of Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting lists the prices at which such goods should be sold. Earlier, the text explains:

In order to provide suitable work for the lower classes, the Ladies’ Committee have countenanced a Penny Club, to which those children willing, subscribe weekly, and are allowed to purchase for themselves and parents cloathing at the prime cost of materials, without any chare for making.

It goes on:

In schools where the children are clothed, the lowest classes may easily be supplied with work, if the Mistress be allowed to have the materials for the clothing long enough before it is wanted, so that time may be afforded for the little girls to do the easy parts.[viii]

This quote demonstrates that the needlework education being provided to girls at the National Society’s schools fulfilled two objectives; it created a structure in which girls could sew garments for sale, modeling the wage-earning activities many of these girls would explore later in life. It also taught the skills needed to clothe a family, as modeled by the girls’ classes which worked to provide clothing for the schoolchildren themselves. Writing about nineteenth-century Philadelphia schools, Nina Lerman explains that girls in this American city both learned and performed the tasked needed to run a house at their schools. Part of this was production, as female students regularly made all of the garments and textile goods needed for the running of such a school and “as in any ordinary household, the quantity of sewing accomplished by the girls varied more closely with the number of people wearing clothes than with the number of people sewing them.”[ix] Both in Britain and America, schools were a space for girls to practice housewifery. They were also, however, a space in which girls learned vocational skills which might later be used not to run a house, but to earn wages.

While female students at any school of this era typically learned needlework, they also studied other subjects. The schedule for the Central School, for example, taught reading, writing, and cyphering to both boys and girls before lunch. After lunch, the boys continued these subjects, while the girls did needlework. From four-thirty to five, all the children studied arithmetic tables.[x] In other instances, the boys learned their own gender-specific skills. After the American Revolution, “Academies” for both boys and girls sprung up all over the new republic. As we might anticipate, the girls learned needlework. Boys might study surveying and navigation instead.[xi] Unlike the school which published, Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting, these academies were not for the destitute. Both types of institutions, however, found value in teaching similar subjects. As a line from a school sewing manual published in 1821 highlights, education was deemed valuable for all:

It is extremely desirable that those nations which have adopted the System of Mutual Instruction for the Boys, should be put in possession of that part of the plan which is calculated for Girls; as they have at least equal claims upon the benevolent exertions of the friends of morality and virtue.[xii]

Marking sample, page 20, Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting. Photo courtesy of Winterthur Museum, Library, and Garden.

Though boys’ and girls’ education shared a certain degree of the curriculum, I would argue that girls’ lessons – even those concerned with words and numbers – were reinforced in a uniquely sensory way. For many girls all of their lessons came together in the tactile textile activity of embroidery. Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting’s second to last sample demonstrates the skill of marking, where colored thread is used to stitch identifying marks – generally initials or numbers – into household linens. As part of learning these skills girls could create a basic reference sheet of embroidery stitches such as the sample in the book, or a needlework picture, complete with elaborate motifs and moralizing text. In either case, more academic lessons were applied along with needlework skills in order to shape letters and numbers.[xiii]  Through this process, girls used not a pen, piece of chalk, or even a finger in a sand table to shape their letters, but a needle and thread. Meaning, process, and technique came together as each letter was formed on the cloth. In an age when women were understood to have a predisposition towards design skills, this practice can be seen as both symptom and cause. Presumably transforming other schoolwork into artwork was “natural” for females. At the same time, the emphasis on this type of quasi-artistic skill in female education almost certainly fostered those same design tendencies in girls, regardless of their inherent ability. The fundamentals of girls’ education taught them to think about design.

Sampler by Catharine Cook, 1812. In the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

The works that these young amateur designers embroidered help to support this idea. Though I have yet to find an example from the Central School, other girls at British charity institutions created samplers with elaborate scenes, and long moralizing texts.[xiv] Girls from both charity schools and wealthy family in America and Britain have left their mark on the historical record in the form of embroidery samplers. These objects are united not by location or by class, but by eighteenth and early nineteenth century girlness, embodied in a designated gender role and a shared skill. Along with their collective power, samplers also represent individual young women in a way no other part of the historical record can; on samplers, girls recorded their names and ages in their own hands and in the uniquely feminine script of embroidery.

As John Styles pointed out, not every woman grew up with a proficiency in sewing, but as Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting highlights, the skill was valued enough to be taught to the poor. Though that education was relatively rudimentary, understanding its role as a unique and uniting element of girl’s education makes its other applications more meaningful. Many wealthier girls and women imbued their textiles with the more diverse lessons of their own educations. Philadelphian Ann Flower, for example, created a sketchbook full of pen and ink and watercolor images. They vary from stylized illustrations, to close copies from printed sources, to her own original embroidery designs.[xv] Ann drew these pictures in part to help develop her own artistic ability, a skill which manifested in her needlework. Her skills in both design and embroidery shine through in a needlework picture she created in 1763.[xvi]

A page of embroidery design’s from Ann Flower’s sketchbook. Ann Flower, Sketchbook, ca.1753-1760?, Doc. 1244, Downs Collections, Winterthur Museum, Library, and Garden.

Both Ann Flower’s sketchbook and needlework picture reside in the collection at Winterthur, a fitting home considering both the museum’s collecting policy, and its proximity to Philadelphia. Around the time of Ann’s birth in 1743, another woman was drawing flowers and contemplating colored silk threads across the Atlantic in Spitalfields, outside of London. Many of Anna Maria Gathwaite’s designs for luscious silk brocades are now on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Just a few days before I explored the site of the Central School and of Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital, our class stopped into the gallery of Spitalfields silks at the Victoria and Albert Museum. There Dr. Zara Anishanslin explained that wealthy British women of the mid-eighteenth century might have chosen another way to unite knowledge with textiles by purchasing silks designed by Garthwaite, who regularly included detailed botanical representations in her designs for Spitalfields’ weavers. These motifs reflect Garthwaite’s own interest in botany.[xvii]

A century after Garthwaite drew flowers into her silk designs, Sarah Peters founded the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. There women were trained to use what was perceived as their innate design sense to create patterns for the American textile industry. In doing so, they learned a respectable vocational skill.[xviii] That skill reflected generations of women and girls before them whose education had focused on practical textile-related crafts in order to help them earn a living and run a home, but which also unwittingly developed their “feminine” design sense. A similar communal understanding of design was at work in the girls of the Philadelphia House of Refuge and London’s Central School, as they stitched shirts, caps, and pinafores for their classmates.[xix]

Sitting in the rare books room at Winterthur, flipping through the pages of Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting, I realized that the lessons found in this book were ones I had learned as well. The two-hundred year old assumptions about femininity, design, and textiles crafts embodied in this book, though lessened by time, still exist in the twenty-first century. Growing up female, I understood that I was supposed to care about line, shape, and color, and that if I expressed an interest in sewing, I would not be discouraged. In a much more literal way though, I learned the lessons of the needlework manual: among the folders full of notes from my undergrad is a fat three ring binder. Like Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting, its covers are bowed around its irregular contents, which consist of plastic sleeves, each holding typed directions for a style of seam, hem, or collar. Each is accompanied by a sewn sample. One plastic sleeve even contains a miniature shirt. This was the coursework of my college clothing construction course, and the foundation of my study of historic dress, which provides the rudiments of this paper. Like the girls at the Central School, I learned to sew by copying examples. Like generations of women before me, learning that skill meant has also meant absorbing ideas about design which benefit me even now, as I reflect on the connections between what our class saw in England in January and the objects we see every day in the collections at Winterthur.

My sample book from my first-year college costuming class.

My first reaction to Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting was a personal one: I related to the lessons between the book’s pages because I had learned similar lessons myself. But after contemplating it in relation to brocaded silks and linen shirts, and having kept it, and those who learned from it, in mind as I walked the length of Baldwin’s Gardens in the January rain, I would argue that it deserves a place at the center of a broad web of connections. Those connections bring together girls from past and present; the lower, middle, and upper classes; Britain and America. As a whole, that web illustrates how design permeates the world around us, and allows us to see the designed world from the perspective of a girl with a needle in her hand.



[i] John Styles, Threads of Feeling: The London Foundling Hospital’s Textile Tokens, 1740-1770 (London: Foundling Museum, 2010), 11.

[ii] Styles, Threads of Feeling, 58-61.

[iii] Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting: as derived from the practice of the Central School, Baldwin’s Gardens, Gray’s Inn Lane, London (London: Printed for Roake and Varty, F. Rivington, and Hatchard and Son, 1829), 3. John Britton, The Original Picture of London, enlarged and improved… Twenty-fourth edition, etc (London: Longmans & Co., 1826), 271-3.

[iv] William Hogarth, Portrait of Thomas Coram, 1740, on display at the Foundling Museum.

[v] Britton, The Original Picture of London, 274.

[vi] Linen Shirt, Winterthur Museum, Library, and Garden, 2000.021.001.

[vii] Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting, 9, 13-14.

[viii] Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting, 4.

[ix] Nina E. Lerman, “”Preparing for the Duties and Practical Business of Life”: Technological Knowledge and Social Structure in Mid-19th-Century Philadelphia,” Technology and Culture 38, no. 1 (1997): 38-9.

[x] Britton, The Original Picture of London,  272-3

[xi] Margaret A. Nash, “”Cultivating the Powers of Human Beings”: Gendered Perspectives on Curricula and Pedagogy in Academies of the New Republic,” History of Education Quarterly 41, no. 2 (2001): 247.

[xii] A Manual of the System of Teaching Needlework in the Elementary Schools of the British and Foreign School Society. 2nd ed., rev. and improved, (London : British and Foreign School Society, 1821), 8.

[xiii] Leena A. Rana, “Stories behind the Stitches: Schoolgirl Samplers of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.” TEXTILE, 12, no. 2 (2014): 159, 164.

[xiv] See Rana, “Stories behind the Stitches” for further discussion of British schoolgirl samplers.

[xv] Ann Flower, Sketchbook, ca.1753-1760?, Doc. 1244,  Downs Collections, Winterthur Museum, Library, and Garden.

[xvi] Ann Flower, Needlework coat of arms (Embroidered hatchment), 1763, Winterthur Museum, Library, and Garden, 1958.2226.

[xvii] Zara Anishanslin, Portrait of a Woman in Silk: hidden histories of the British Atlantic world, (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2016), 62. Visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum, and lecture by Dr. Zara Anishanslin, January 19th, 2018.

[xviii] Lerman, “”Preparing for the Duties and Practical Business of Life,”” 50-51.

[xix] Lerman, “”Preparing for the Duties and Practical Business of Life,”” 38.