Alison Larkin Embroidery

Historical Embroidery in Full-size and Miniature

How DID I get HERE?

I’ve always been a crafter, particularly hand stitching. I don’t remember being taught, but it must have been my mum and my gran. I was making summer dresses by the time I was 10, and I made my wedding dress the first time round. I tried many crafts, but embroidery was always the main one. 

Embroidery kept me sane through 30 years of teaching Biology in FE, giving me an outlet that helped me survive better than some of my workaholic colleagues who marvelled at everything I managed to fit in! I enjoyed teaching, especially adults, but I was getting stressed out by the admin, the targets, and the trouble fitting adult courses into a traditional FE mould: Square pegs and round holes…. So in 2013 I found the escape tunnel (redundancy)! The idea was to do embroidery full-time, maybe make a little business out of it. It would keep me out of mischief, at least. One can but hope….

So there I was, loose in the world as an embroiderer and looking for a project to get me going. Enter my mum and her friend Sophie. Mum was one of life’s organisers: mention a problem or a dilemma and she took it with crusading zeal! It was actually Sophie who came up with the original idea: she was Chair of Trustees at the Captain Cook Memorial Museum at Whitby. She told me about an unfinished waistcoat from the 1770’s she had seen at the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney. It was embroidered by Elizabeth Cook, the wife of Capt. James Cook, but was never finished because he was killed in Hawaii in 1779. Sophie suggested that I make a replica and finish it, to put on exhibition in The Cook Museum in 2015. She was organising an exhibition based on Polynesian textiles, and the original waistcoat was stitched on Tapa Cloth, a barkcloth made in Tahiti and gifted to James during his 2nd voyage to the Pacific. 

I had a look at the waistcoat on the SLNSW website and decided I could do this. The embroidery was interesting and not too complex. Mum took a hand (inevitably) and suggested applying for some funding for the project, which I actually got! Some from the Society of Antiquaries of London, and some from the Normanby Trust. 

The funding paid for some high-definition full-size photos of the waistcoat from the SLNSW, and then for a trip out there to have a proper look at it. That was amazing! I discovered to my surprise that I was the first embroiderer to study the waistcoat. Historians, Cook enthusiasts, yes, but no stitchers. I also went to New Zealand to study another Cook waistcoat, also embroidered by Elizabeth. This one was finished and had been worn by James, so I was able to use it to establish his measurements. My husband Chris and I built an amazing holiday around these two visits: I would never have thought my embroidery would take me to the other side of the world! I completed the waistcoat in time for the exhibition, using tapa cloth sourced by mail-order from a firm in Hawaii. 

The Cook Waistcoat on exhibition at the Cook Memorial Museum in. Whitby, North Yorks.

The funding also paid for visits to other museums in the UK to examine their waistcoats from the 1770s – and that’s what sparked the fire! These embroideries were beautiful, detailed, fascinating. So were all the photos that popped up on Facebook once I started following the right people. The Georgian period was one of elaborate decoration on costume, at least for the aristocracy and gentry.

The more embroidery, the higher your status. Designs were planned out on paper for customers of the workshops to examine and order; some were actually ready-embroidered, so they could be taken to a tailor and fitted to a customer. The fact that many of these items were only worn a few times means that they have survived to be taken into museum collections, so there are a lot out there. And the designs are lovely!

It wasn’t just waistcoats. The real show-stoppers are the Court Dress Suits, waistcoat, frock coat and breeches, all embroidered with matching designs. These were de riguer for attending functions at Court or aristocratic events. Gentry who couldn’t afford a suit from a professional workshop might ask their wife or daughter to embroider a waistcoat and possibly a frock coat – as James presumably did! I saw several waistcoats in the museums that looked like someone’s ‘best’ waistcoat, made by their wife. 

So I was officially and seriously hooked on Georgian embroidery! I wrote a paper on the waistcoat and followed several dress historians on social media to see what was going on in the field. Then something came out of left field at me. 

Professor Jennie Batchelor at the University of Kent (she is now at York University) is a historian of 18th century women’s writing and periodicals. She bought an original copy of The Lady’s Magazine, Or Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex, published in 1796, which by some chance had ‘gold’ hidden therein – extant copies of the embroidery patterns which the periodical published every month. That’s a bit like finding copies of Woman’s Weekly with the transfer patterns still attached – in 250 years’ time! Jennie photographed them and posted the pics on Twitter, and got pounced on, by myself and a number of other embroiderers in the UK and elsewhere. 

A pattern for a workbag from The Lady’s Magazine

Jennie and I became friends over our shared interest in embroidery and the Lady’s Magazine patterns. This led to our collaboration on Jane Austen Embroidery, published in 2020 by Pavilion Books in the UK and Dover Publications in the USA. It has historical essays on Austen, the Lady’s Magazine and life in the late 18C, plus 15 embroidery projects designed by me using the Lady’s Magazine patterns we had unearthed. It’s been a great success, despite coming out 3 weeks before Covid Lockdown. 

So now I continue to collect embroidery patterns from the 18/early 19C, and use them to design projects for modern stitchers. I also lecture on historical embroidery, and teach workshops and classes on hand stitching. I love the embroidery of the Georgian period!

2 thoughts on “How DID I get HERE?

  1. Embroidery has a habit of taking us to unexpected places! I was showing “Jane Austen Embroidery” to a book designer today over a project of my own…

    1. Glad you’ve got the book, Rachel, and I assume you’ve enjoyed it since you’re showing it to folks! It’s been quite a ride, and I can’t help but wonder where next……?

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