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Plying the Needle

There’s a part in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley where Shirley is called into a room by her lover. The scene follows thus:

The door unclosed; Miss Keeldar came in. The message, it appeared, had found her at her needle: she brought her work in her hand. […]

She made a full stop between the door and his desk.

‘Did you want me, sir?’ she asked.

‘I ventured, Miss Keeldar, to send for you – that is, to ask an interview of a few minutes.’

She waited: she plied her needle.

I love this imagery. And the fact that Shirley can just stand there sewing whilst she waits for Slowpokes to spit out a sentence. I mean, why can’t I do that? Why can’t I walk around with my embroidery hoop attached to my chatelaine and naturally pick it up at will when I’m in the office waiting for some cretin to give me faxing instructions or whilst some jerk is yelling at me on the phone? Why would that be frowned upon? I JUST WANT TO PLY MY NEEDLE.


I guess I can just add that to the long list of modern injustices, right below the sobering fact that I will never have the opportunity to catch consumption (thanks, vaccines!).

I’m a self-taught knitter and embroiderer but definitely don’t apply my rudimentary skills often enough (and therefore they remain rudimentary unlike, say, the super talented Helen of CrawCrafts Beasties–seriously, check out her unique creations and Beastie adventures; I am borderline obsessed). But last year,  I would occasionally work on some crewel pieces during my lovely commute. My pastime would often (unfortunately) spark a dialogue with fellow commuters who wanted to know what the hell I was doing and why (‘Well what’s it supposed to be? A cushion? Do you put it in a frame? Why are you doing that?’ ‘No. I mean, I don’t know. It’s just a thing, it’s just…. LEAVE ME ALONE!’).

Many of the questions centred around the design of this piece:


So, I’d explain, ‘Oh, it’s actually a William Morris.’ 100% of the time, this explanation was met with a blank stare. So I’d be like, ‘You know, like the Arts & Crafts Movement from the 19th century?’ STARE. ‘Like the Pre-Raphaelites,’ I’d pursue, the hole I was digging growing deeper.

Due to this alarming lack of awareness shared by the general public, I decided I’d better write a Pre-Raphaelite PSA (because my blog is such a wildly read and influential publication).

HOWEVER I’ve already spent half this post complaining about not getting to dress and act like a lunatic in 2017, and this gripe happened to send me down a different research path that I thought might be of interest to you. (We’ll save the Pre-Raffies for another day).


Cut steel chatelaine, England, about 1851*

(There has already been a pretty comprehensive Collectors Weekly post written about chatelaines here that is worth a read, but I’ll just give you some highlights.)

For those of you who don’t know, chatelaines were a type of super useful jewelry worn by Victorian (and pre-Victorian) women. Basically, they were a series of chains bearing various attachments, usually fastened to a belt/something at the woman’s waist. And you could pick and choose which attachments would suit you best! Big on sewing? You’d probably have a pincushion, tiny scissors, a pin case, and a thimble! Maybe you’re an avid note taker? Why not have a little sterling notebook and pen attachment! And naturally, they were good for carrying keys (as was their original purpose).

Of course, some chatelaines were more decorative than practical, the especially ornate and beautiful ones made to be worn outside the confines of the home. They also managed to traverse social classes, worn by homemakers both large and small. And like most things, they were even the butt of some Punch cartoons! I actually lol’ed at the second illustration/caption–those hilarious Victorians.

A Real Blessing
‘How to make a Chatelaine a real blessing to Mothers’, wood engraving by John Leech**
A Really Useful Present
‘The Chatelaine: A Really Useful Present’ – Laura. “Look, Ma’ dear; see what a love of a chatelaine Edwards has given me.” wood engraving by John Leech**

So, who thinks we should bring back chatelaines?! I really think there must be a market for them and that they would be hot sellers at Urban Outfitters.

I guess until that day, I will continue to lose my little scissors on trains and Sellotape my needles to cardboard and have pens bleeding into the bottom of every bag and litter the ground with a thousand tissues every time I get something out of my purse.

What would you keep on your chatelaine?

xWG // #dazeandweekes

Weekes Word time!

Obstreperous: surfacing in the late 16th century from Latin obstreperus and meaning noisy and difficult to control. EX: Despite the jingling cacophony and occasional (accidental?) stabbing of coworkers by swinging scissors, Weekes insisted on wearing her obstreperous chatelaine in the office.

*© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

**Images from Internet Archive and University of Toronto library. John Leech’s Pictures of Life and Character from the Collection of Mr Punch. London: Bradbury, Agnew, & Co., 1886.

26 thoughts on “Plying the Needle Leave a comment

  1. Love love love! The cartoons were hilarious! I love the (obstreperous) children attached to the chatelaine. These blogs are so entertaining!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. -GASP- You do embroidery?! And knit? In public places? YEEEEEEEEEAAAAAH! Me too… But no-one ever asks me what I’m doing. Even the day I did needle felting on the Luas (Dublin tram) failed to raise a single eyebrow. Your William Morris piece looks incredible, can we see all of it sometime? (And how did nobody know who William Morris is? He even got namechecked in the last series of Peep Show, did that not help raise public awareness at all?)
    I am going to wholeheartedly get behind your “bring back the chatelaine” campaign… Never again will I have to resort to my usual tactic of summoning lost scissors and pincushions by yelling at the pile of junk where I think they might be hidden. As per your helpful illustrations, I might also put the kettle on there, so I’m ready for my tea breaks. Oh, and finally… THANK YOU for the shout-out 😊 Compliments from fellow craftspeople are the best kind – keep plying that needle, lady!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Are you kidding?! I cannot believe you have not been questioned about your public crafting activities!! How do I seem approachable to people?! I can think of at least 10 different incidents with the embroidery. I have also been asked numerous times, ‘What are you writing?’ if I’m journaling in public (none of your business!!!), and one time on the subway in NYC, a guy took the earbud out of my ear and put it in his own ear saying, ‘Ohh what music are you listening to?’ Ahhhhhh!!! Maybe it’s because you work in the miniature, barely perceptible to the human eye haha. Anyway, you’ve inspired me to maybe finish the butterfly on the William Morris sometime in the next 20 years 🙂 xxx


      • Yaaaaay! DO IT!! As for the public crafting – maybe I suffer from “bitchy crafting face”? 👹 I did used to get disturbed a lot when I’d try to write outside though, so I feel your pain. And what was with that subway guy? On what planet is putting a stranger’s headphone in your ear an acceptable greeting?!

        Liked by 2 people

      • Hahaha I mean, from how you described needle felting, maybe people were just frightened you’d stab them! Re the subway – my friend sent me an article the other day about a man urinating on a woman’s face (she had her eyes closed listening to music) on the J Train so…. I guess it could have been worse! (Neverclosingmyeyesonpublictransportagain)


      • I think they could! When you look at it, modern clothing norms really have been a step backwards. 😀 That’s a fascinating article too, although it’s a little sad that, 100 years on from the Hatpin Peril, we’re still dealing with “dress that way and you’re asking for it”…

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yep, sadly pretty much nothing has changed except that they took the hatpins away from us and informed us that sexism doesn’t exist anymore!


      • Dammit!
        That said, the recent resurgence in the popularity of knitting does provide one with a convenient (and innocuous) substitute for the hatpin! I don’t know about you, but I always feel much safer when I have my crafting kit with me 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Very funny article. I love your voice. I am also amazed that William Morris should be so unknown. My dream house would have all walls covered in his wallpaper. They sell a few items at the Metropolitan Museum website that commemorate his designs, if you need a fix. But bravo for doing him in needlepoint. I look forward to chortling to your future blog posts, and hope your fingertips heal. And amen to the hatpin suffragettes!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Probably … or something like wanting us to buy bigger and bigger bags to fill with more and more things that we buy because the pocket usurpers (because there used to be pockets!) have told us we need them. Something like that! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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