Miss Austen Buys Fabric

The most frequent item mentioned by Jane Austen when she writes home to Cassandra about her London shopping expeditions is fabric for her own use and for Cassandra and their mother. Ready made gowns were unusual and ladies in modest circumstances, such as the Austens, would buy dress lengths of fabric and either make them up at home or use a local dressmaker.

Mostly ladies would browse at the drapers’ shops and make their choices there, but Ackerman’s Repository of Arts, Science etc, was innovative enough to give samples of real fabrics in the magazine and a page for February 1810 is shown here.
1-Ackermann fabrics
Top left: A royal embossed satin: a splendid and elegant article for robes or pelisses. Sold by Harris, Moody & Co., silk-weavers, Pall-Mall.

Top right: A superfine imperial orange bombazeen, particularly calculated for Ladies’ dresses. It is sold, of every colour, by Messrs. Waithman and Everington, No,104, Fleet-street.

Bottom left: An imitative Angola shawl dress of blended green and amber. Sold by Messrs. Brisco & Powley, No.103, New Bond-street, from 38s to 50s per dress.

Bottom right: An India rib permanent green print. A patent has lately been obtained by Hewson, Higgins & Hett, for printing green on cotton goods. Sundry cotton goods for waistcoats are printed exclusively for Kestevens, York-street, Covent-garden.

On 24th May 1813 Jane wrote, “I went the day before (Friday) to Layton’s as I proposed, & got my Mother’s gown, 7 yds at 6/6.” [ie six shillings and six pence a yard]. Layton’s drapery shop, Bedford House, was at 9, Henrietta Street in Covent Garden, right next door to Henry Austen’s bank at number 10. Henry was on the point of moving to live in he apartments over the bank and Jane reports going next door to inspect the work, “which is all dirt & confusion, but in a very promising way…”

She does not say what kind of fabric she had purchased, presumably the ladies had agreed about that in advance, but in mid-September she was staying with Henry at number 10 and reports, “We did go to Layton & Shear’s before Breakfast. Very pretty English poplins at 4 [shillings and] 3 [pence]. Irish ditto at 6 [shillings] – more pretty certainly – beautiful.” Later in the same letter she writes to Cassandra, “…I am going to treat myself with spending [my superfluous wealth myself. I hope at least I shall find some poplin at Layton & Shears that will tempt me to buy it. If I do, it shall be sent to Chawton, as half will be for you … I shall send 20 yards.”

The invaluable English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century by C.Willet Cunnington describes poplin as being “made of a silk warp and wool or worsted weft, having a fine cord on the surface, and produced in several varieties, brocaded, watered and plain.”

Jane also patronised Christian & Sons at 11, Wigmore Street where she bought dimity (“A stout cotton fabric, plain or twilled, with a raised pattern on one side.”) and Newton’s, just of Leicester Square, for Irish linen.

One of the most up-market fabric shops were Wilding & Kent at Grafton house on the corner of New Bond Street and Grafton Street. On 17 April 1811 Jane and Manon, Eliza Austen’s maidservant, ‘…took our walk to Grafton House, & I have a good deal to say on that subject. I am sorry to tell you that I am getting very extravagant & spending all my Money; & what is worse for you, I have been spending yours too…’ she told Cassandra. It was a very busy shop and in November 1815 Jane complains of ‘the miseries’ of shopping there and most of her references to it mention an early start and long waits to be served – not that this stopped her going there frequently.

One fashionable drapers, Harding, Howell and Co., is not mentioned by Jane, although she must have known it, for it was located in Pall Mall in the seventeenth century red brick Schomberg House which still stands out in this street of stone and stucco.

According to Ackermann’s Repository, which is where the illustration below appeared, ‘It is fitted up with great taste, and divided by glazed partitions into four departments.’ These were: furs and fans; ‘haberdashery of every description, siHarding, Howel0001lks, muslins, lace, gloves etc.’; jewellery and ornamental items including perfumery and finally, ‘millinery and dresses; so that there is no article of female attire or decoration, but what may here procured in the first style of elegance and fashion.’


Filed under Fashions, Shopping

12 responses to “Miss Austen Buys Fabric

  1. helenajust

    Fascinating post, thank you! Even quite recently one could buy a good variety of material in every town in England, but not now. I did a lot of dress-making in my youth, when there wasn’t such a good selection of well-priced clothes (or charity shops, now an excellent source of good clothes!).

  2. Glad you enjoyed it, Helena. I can recall fabric shops like that – now all you can get is fabric for patchwork, it seems. The choice in Harding, Howell looks amazing!

  3. What I find interesting is the wealth of colour. It wasn’t quite so white white white as we are led to believe. Love the last pic with those wonderful hanging fabrics on either side. Very interesting post.

    • They really are vivid, especially the orange. But when you see interiors liek those at the Sir John Soane Museum, you can appreciate that tastes seem to run to those vivid shades – good by candlelight perhaps?

      • Sorry for tagging to the thread like this, but the comment box wouldn’t work for me. I do agree about vivid colours. We see it in many gowns in museums. When they could get strong colours that didn’t wash out or fade, they loved it.

        However, my question was about “Bottom left: An imitative Angola shawl dress of blended green and amber. Sold by Messrs. Brisco & Powley, No.103, New Bond-street, from 38s to 50s per dress.” A dress shawl I can understand, though the price would be high for that sort, I think, but a shawl dress? Purchased made up? Do you know, Louise?

  4. Fascinating, as usual. We have a fabric shop here in Whitstable, and there’s a huge one in Canterbury, so not quite disappeared. I was surrounded by fabric in my youf and childhood as my mum was a lingerie designer and made all our clothes. (Does that make sense?) And, more nostalgia, eldest son used to live at 15 Henrietta Street…

  5. Thanks, Lesley. I’m afraid I now have an image of your entire family clad only in designer lingerie and causing a considerable stir when out shopping… How exciting about the Henrietta St address!

  6. Jo – I am pretty certain that when they refer to a “dress” they mean a dress-length. JA refers to buying a “dress” for her mother when from the context it is obvious it is unmade-up fabric. I’ve also got fashion plates showing gowns made up using Kashmir shawls and the feel of the fabric would be about right for tha weight – but I agree, it is an odd way to word it.

  7. pastnow

    Reblogged this on pastnow.

  8. nmayer2015

    How wide was the fabric?

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