Book Review ~ Jane Austen’s Sewing Box

book cover jane austens sewing boxJane Austen’s Sewing Box: Craft Projects & Stories from Jane Austen’s Novels. 

by Jennifer Forest.  Murdoch Books Australia, 2009 

ISBN:  9781741963748, paperback, 224 pages.





 This is a lovely, sumptuous book.  When it first arrived, I did a quick skim – it is filled with photographs, decorated papers, fashion plates, quotes from Austen, and a good number of handiwork projects – hmmm, I thought, maybe one of those books that just looks nice but is of little substance – a coffee table [albeit a small one] book you look at once and then relegate it to collect dust in the “parlor” –  But on further study I found within these 224 pages a wealth of information – a brief but amazingly thorough introductory commentary on Regency historic and social life, the world of “women’s work” in Austen’s time, and the references to Austen’s many mentions of these real-life activities in her novels and letters.

 Ms. Forest has a background in history and cultural heritage, and combining this knowledge, her love of Austen and a “passion for fabric arts and crafts,” she has given us a treasure of a book.  With a starting point of finding Austen’s references to handi- and fancy work, Forest puts these quotes in their historical context, explains the meaning and use of the piece, and then provides instructions for each project – each of varying skill level, each a different task – there is knitting, sewing, embroidery, netting, paperwork, glasswork, and canvas-work, a total of eighteen different projects – from a letter case, linen cravat, fur tippet, to a pin cushion, reticule, bonnet and muslin cap – all mentioned by Jane Austen, and here lovingly replicated, with photographs of Regency era decorative arts and Ackermann’s fashion plates interspersed throughout. 

Best to show an example, so I will choose the huswife [page 100ff]  [ “the huswife was a small fabric case with pockets to hold all those tools for sewing and needlework – scissors, tape measure, thread, pins, and pin cushion”( page 104)]: 

This is a sewing task for beginners, with two pages of photographs of the finished piece, a short history of the huswife and its uses, a quote [all the quotes are written in script] from Emma where Austen uses the term [there is also a second quote from Sense & Sensibility spoken by Anne Steele] – here Miss Bates has misplaced a letter from Jane Fairfax that she later reads to Emma:

 “Thank you. You are so kind!” replied the happily deceived aunt, while eagerly hunting for the letter. “Oh here it is.  I was sure it could not be far off, but I had put my huswife on it, you see, and without being aware, and so it was hid.”  [page 104, quoting Emma]

 This is followed by a full page of blue decorated paper with a part of the quote, a full page fashion plate from Ackermann’s, and a full page of an art reproduction depicting a woman at her fancy work, then a full page photograph of a detail from a piece of Regency furniture [all photographs are from the Johnston Collection *], and then three pages of project instructions with black and white drawings, and a final photograph of a furniture detail.  This format and sequence is followed for each of the eighteen projects, ending with a list of suppliers, references and an index.

johnston collection desk

from The Johnston Collection


All these Austen quotes, taken out of context, are quite a wonderful discovery! – they can so easily be passed over in the reading – what indeed IS a huswife? or a tippet? [“Jane, dear Jane, where are you? here is your tippet.  Mrs. Weston begs you to put on your tippet.”]  Or a transparency? [“and its greatest elegancies and ornaments were a faded footstool of Julia’s work, too ill done for the drawing room, three transparencies, made in a rage for transparencies…”] or a reticule? [“…a letter which she [Mrs. Elton] had apparently been reading aloud to Miss Fairfax, and return it into the purple and gold reticule by her side.”]  or “netting” for that matter [“They all paint tables, cover screens and net purses” says Charles Bingley]; and then of course Lady Bertram’s carpet-work and “yards of fringe!” 

This book opened up a whole new awareness of Austen’s writing in the NOW – her knowing what her readers would glean from these almost off-hand references [as in Mrs. Elton’s purple and gold reticule, “expensive colours that Austen possibly chose to sketch her character’s pretensions to grandeur, associated as they were with royalty and luxury.” [page 182] – and as always one is awed by Austen’s use of such fine details to delineate character.

fashion plate yellow dress


 The book is by no means comprehensive on the subject – but there are so many tidbits of Regency social life and customs, coupled with Austen’s words – I found in the reading an “oasis of calm”, a slowing down, a return to a time of sewing for the poor, or making your brother’s shirts (done in private), and your embroidery and fancy work and painting put on public display to show yourself as “an accomplished woman” [a la Mr. Darcy] – and the exquisite paper and decoration, the furniture details, and the fashion illustrations all combine to create this time-warp, invoking the Regency era and “its enthusiastic appreciation of design in all forms – dress, architecture, interiors, furniture, wallpaper and fabric” [page 17] – the whole sphere is beautifully presented in these pages and makes this a wonderful addition to your Jane Austen collection and a great starting point for your creative endeavors! 

5 full inkwells [out of 5]

* The Johnston Collection is “a Fine and Decorative Arts Museum, Gallery and Reference Library in East Melbourne, Australia.  It is no ordinary museum with roped off exhibits, but presents an astonishing and diverse collection arranged in the English Country House Style.”  Visit their website for the history, gallery exhibits, and a sampling of the treasures in the collection.

Posted by Deb

Interview with Jennifer Forest, author of “Jane Austen’s Sewing Box”

book cover jane austens sewing box


Today we have Jennifer Forest joining us to share her thoughts on her new book Jane Austen’s Sewing Box: Craft Projects & Stories from Jane Austen’s Novels [NSW, Australia: Murdoch Books, 2009]:

What inspired Jane Austen’s Sewing Box? 

I love Jane Austen, history and craft so it seemed quite natural for me to join these  interests.  A few years ago, re-reading Jane Austen’s novels I noticed that she makes quite a few references to craft including sewing, knotting, painting and netting. It spurred me on to start digging around to find out what the crafts were that Jane Austen’s women were doing.  The Regency left a strong design legacy and there are many examples of the beautiful craft worked by women during this great period for arts and craft. 

What types of projects are in the book?  

Just as Jane Austen includes a range of craft references in her novels, there are also a range of projects in the book.  All projects are based on her novels and letters, so there’s everything from making paper flowers, to embroidery, sewing, painting, knitting and those lost arts of netting and knotting.  

What skills do you need to do the projects? 

I really believe that craft should be something you can do, not something you struggle with to the end! So there is something for all skill levels from beginner and intermediate projects to more advanced projects for experienced crafty people.  I also used materials and tools true to the period that can be sourced from shops today. 

How did you use original objects from the Regency for Jane Austen’s Sewing Box? 

I have been fortunate to work in museums where I was surrounded by beautiful objects from the past, so I knew there was a collection of Regency items available for research. Each project is based on original examples from the Regency period, from the overall design right down to details like the actual size of a finished piece, colours and materials. 

Were Regency women the original “domestic goddess”?

Well, the home was their empire in the Regency and craft skills were so important to the management of a household that it was called “women’s work”.  The ability of women to hand sew was crucial to clothing the family and helping support the poor in their village.  This was a time before sewing machines and shopping malls, when it wasn’t so easy to buy what ever you needed.  Even when tailors and dressmakers were used, women’s work in many families provided the men’s shirts, children’s clothes, nightwear, towels, sheets and bedding.  

How long would she spend on “women’s work”?

A Regency woman either alone or in a work party could easily spend 4 to 5 hours a day working.  Jane and Cassandra Austen often made their brother’s shirts, even when they had left home, married and in Charles’ case, joined the navy.  Jane Austen was proud of her neat running stitch in making up her brother’s shirts!

 Was it all sewing shirts and making towels?

No, craft skills gave women a way to show their creative talents.  Much of the professional world, including art, was only really open to men.  But Regency women also loved arts and design. Craft skills allowed a woman to express her creativity and design abilities, whether that was in a handmade huswife or purse to be given as a gift or in painted pieces like the firescreens made by Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility.  

Why do you love Jane Austen? 

I think every time I read her novels my reasons for liking them change!  Her character portrayals are far better than most writers.  I think most of us today still recognise her characters in people we know – we’ve all known an ‘Emma Woodhouse’, a ‘Miss Bates’ or a ‘Fitzwilliam Darcy’.  She is actually quite funny and witty in a beautiful and clever way.  But at the same time I think she was an acute observer and sharp commentator on her times. 

What handiwork / craft do you do? 

I love trying out new crafts skills so I’ve experimented with a range of different things. What I keep coming back to though is screen printing (love combining paint and fabric), felting, sewing and embroidery.


Thank you Jennifer for joining us today!  If anyone has any questions, please send a comment and I will get those answered for you.  I received the book in the mail yesterday and will be posting a review of it tomorrow – it is a wonderful compilation of history, Austen quotes, visual treats and, of course, the crafts!  The book is now available for ordering on ; there are several available copies from independent sellers on the US Amazon site, but is not actually available yet in the US.

Further reading:

Posted by Deb

On My Bookshelf ~

I love my mailman!  He brings me such gifts almost on a daily basis – yesterday he brought these two books:

book cover ja unrequited love 

Jane Austen: an Unrequited Love, by Andrew Norman [The History Press, 2009] – where the author proposes “that Jane and Cassandra had a falling out over a young clergyman, whom he identifies for the first time.  He also suggests that along with the Addison’s disease that killed her, Jane Austen suffered from TB.”  [from the jacket]




book cover jane austens sewing boxJane Austen’s Sewing Box: Craft projects and stories from Jane Austen’s Novels,  by Jennifer Forest [Murdoch Books, 2009] [see Janiete Kelly’s post on this title] – it is a sumptuous book! 

Please join us tomorrow when I will post an interview with the author, as well as review the book. ~

[I am now going in search of my long-abandoned embroidery supplies… ]


 … and today he brought me the latest issue of Jane Austen’s Regency World [July/August 2009] – as always cram-packed with interesting articles and lovely illustrations – on Austen, Mary Shelley, Queen Caroline, global warming in JA’s time, book reviews, and much more [I will post the full contents tomorrow], but you can see hightlights of the issue as well as download a sample article from a previous issue at the magazine’s website [note that this is the NEW website for JARW, so change your links in your “favorites.”]



How sad to be burdened with a day-job with all this reading to be done!

Posted by Deb

Jane Austen’s Sewing Box

sewingAusten-lover and author Jennifer Forest sends information about her new book (due out in the UK July 6 and available for pre-order), Jane Austen’s Sewing Box (Murdoch Books; 224 pages; £14.99).

If you love handicrafts, this books contains 18 projects, which involve sewing skills, needleworking, netting, painting, paper craft and knitting! Forest has set the projects in their history and literary context, placing Regency-era handiwork alongside extracts from the novels; an explanation of why women made such items; full color photos; and step-by-step instructions.

“Yes, all of them [are accomplished women] I think. They all paint tables, cover screens and net purses.” — Charles Bingley

Jennifer describes the book:

The projects in Jane Austen’s Sewing Box are both objects of beauty and useful for our contemporary lives. Using a range of techniques and readily-available materials and tools, the projects are easily accessible for all skill levels and interests.

All projects are modelled on:

  • projects worked by Jane Austen’s characters
  • work of her circle, and noted in her letters
  • original objects from the Regency period

As a sewer-knitter-crocheter-needleworker, I can’t wait to see this book.

Look for information on Jennifer Forest, and Jane Austen’s Sewing Box, on her website. And stay tuned for a guest appearance by Jennifer on this blog…

[submitted by KM]