Novel Stitching
Popular Patchwork|January 2018

This spring, Jane Austen’s House Museum will unveil a very special quilt to commemorate Jane Austin’s life at Chawton in an exhibition entitled: Piecing Together Jane Austen. Elizabeth Betts describes a year in the making.

Elizabeth Betts

This story starts in Chawton, a pretty village in Hampshire. With its sweet thatched cottages, well-tended cricket pitch and old-fashioned signpost, it could easily be a picture on top of a vintage biscuit tin. There’s no through road, and so would only be admired by locals if it weren’t for a famous former resident who, 200 years after her death, continues to pull in thousands of visitors every year from every corner of the globe. The author, a certain Jane Austen, resided in the seventeenth-century cottage in the heart of the village from 1809 until 1817, and from here she wrote or revised most of her novels. Her sister remained in the house until her death in 1845, then it was divided into three dwellings for labourers on the Chawton estate. Fast forward just over 100 years and the Jane Austen Society spotted it was for sale and put an appeal in The Times newspaper. It was purchased by Mr. T E Carpenter who bought it in memory of his son, Phillip, who died in World War II. The museum formally opened in 1949. Welcoming the public since then, Jane Austen’s House Museum gives visitors an insight into Jane’s life at the time.

The House is home to many items owned, or related to, Jane Austen including letters, jewellery, and her writing table. They are dotted around the rooms to help build up a picture of how she, her sister and their mother lived when they were in Chawton. From her letters, it is known that Jane was a keen needlewoman: in a letter to her sister dated 31 May 1811 Jane writes; “Have you remembered to collect piece (sic) for the patchwork – we are at a standstill.” On display there is an exquisitely embroidered shawl she is said to have sewn and a paper needle book that she made for her niece that still has the paper wrapping signed ‘With Aunt Jane’s Love’. However, for patchworkers, the star of the show is the Austen Coverlet. Readers who have visited the house over the last 35 years may remember seeing it hung on a wall, or placed on a bed, but it has recently been tended to by a conservationist and displayed in a new way. As well as preserving the coverlet, it also allows visitors to admire and get near enough to see the fabrics and the stitches close up. It’s fascinating to look at as the fabrics are symmetrical. The first time I saw it I felt like a child playing eye-spy as I would spot one print on one side, then look to the opposite side to see its twin. It also has a few other quirks – the angles of the diamonds are 70 degrees and 110 degrees, which is quite unusual, and the sashing joining the central diamonds is composed of short pieces, rather than continuous lengths. It makes the viewer start an unending journey of questions such as ‘did they work on opposite sides at the same time?’, and ‘was the sashing fabric leftover from a previous project?’.

It was this coverlet that led to me working at the museum. In early 2017 I saw an advertisement on their Facebook page for a freelance quilt designer. I had long been a fan of Jane Austen, and thought that to combine the two would be a dream job. My obsession started back in 1995, with the Andrew Davis adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. I was in the middle of my A-levels, and it was light relief compared to the heavy themes I was studying in Thomas Hardy’s work at college. I tuned in and fell in love with the storylines, the characters, the settings – just everything. Elizabeth Bennet was the perfect role model for a teenager, caring, intelligent and forthright, and even now if I go for a long walk I like to think it’s making my eyes look brighter! Following this, I consumed everything she wrote and still treasure my tatty Penguin classics that are on the bookshelf at home.

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