Sewing And The Brontes

bronte parsonage signpost

Did any of you watch the recent dramatisation of the Brontes, To Walk Invisible? It was greatly reviewed and I adored glimpsing the Yorkshire moors and those cobbled streets on my small screen. I grew up reading the Brontes, worked at the parsonage as a student and even once wrote a (sadly unpublished) time slip novel inspired by the sisters. So, you could say, I’m interested.

My recent trip to Haworth inspired me to contact The Bronte Parsonage with a request for a blog interview about the Brontes and their clothes. I was delighted when Ann, Principal curator at the museum, agreed to answer some of my questions. If you’re as fascinated as I am by the twin topics of the Brontes and sewing, read on!

Bronte dress

Q: The Brontes sisters’ clothes all look incredibly tiny. Were the sisters’ figures typical for their time ?

A: Charlotte Bronte was known for being unusually small and was even cruelly teased by Harriet Martineau for looking as though she’d fit in at a fairground. But by contrast, Emily Bronte was tall and slender. We have her coffin measurements, and can see that she stood at 5’5″-5’6″ – tall for the time. Her height was accentuated by her disregard for fashion. There are contemporary accounts of her walking around Belgium in dresses without petticoats, which made the skirts cling to her legs, accentuating her height.

Q: Do you know who made the Brontes’ clothes? Themselves, or paid seamstresses?

A: There are references to the sisters making their own clothes. In a diary entry from the 1840s, Anne mentions being anxious about not spoiling a dress she was sewing from grey silk. There are several sewing boxes in the museum, and all the sisters owned needlework paraphernalia.

Bronte Sewing Box

Other outfits, such as best dresses or Charlotte’s wedding dress, would have been commissioned. When Charlotte and Emily went to Brussels to work as tutors, they bought dresses in Halifax where Charlotte is also known to have commissioned dresses for her wedding trousseau. Charlotte and Emily also bought dresses in Brussels.

Out of the three sisters, Charlotte in particular seemed to care about what people thought to her outfits. She lacked confidence, and relied on her friend, Ellen Nussey, to develop her understanding of what would fit and flatter.

bronte parsonage

Q: What fabrics were most of the dresses made from?

A: There was quite a lot of taffeta silk, cotton and wool mixes. Most of the dresses that have survived are Charlotte’s best dresses. Day-to-day dresses would have been handed down to servants or nieces. It’s often joked that Haworth invented recycling!

Q: Most of the dresses in the museum seem to have belonged to Charlotte. Is there a reason for this?

A: Charlotte lived longer than any of her sisters and was the only member of the family to experience fame in her lifetime. During her last five years at the parsonage, people would come to Haworth in order to see her and paid the local sexton to point her out in church. This means that even whilst she was alive, people were beginning to protect her belongings – including her clothes, which have survived to this day.

Charlotte Bronte’s wedding bonnet and veil

charlotte bronte wedding bonnet and veil

Readers, don’t you think it’s fascinating how much we can learn about the Brontes, just from the clothes they wore? Early examples of recycling, experiences of being in the public eye, the way Charlotte cared about people’s impressions – and how Emily most certainly did not! What a slice of literary and fashion history. Thank you so much to Ann and everyone at The Bronte Parsonage for this fascinating interview and accompanying images.

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40 Responses to Sewing And The Brontes

  1. Jay says:

    Hi.
    I’m curious about what the wooden acorn-looking item in the third photo is used for.

    Great topic!

    • I don’t honestly know! A quick Google suggested it might be a thimble holder.

      • LinB says:

        Looks like a darning egg — well, a darning acorn — to me. You use it to help darn holes in knitted garments, so that you won’t stitch layers together by accident. Surely the Bronte sisters wore knitted stockings!

        You can use it to darn holes in woven fabrics, too. A vicar’s daughter had to mend and make do for much of her life, in those days.

      • Lorraine says:

        Hi – it’s actually a miniature sewing kit. It unscrews and there’s a wooden rod inside on which you can slide small spools of thread. Needles slip down the side of the spools and the whole thing is topped off with a thimble. Really neat!

    • PocketC says:

      Very interesting on the darning egg/acorn! That also caught my eye.

  2. Kathy says:

    Thank you. Very interesting.

  3. PsychicSewerKathleen says:

    This was great fun to read! I’m in Canada and just the other night there was a show on Educational TV about the Bronte sisters which I thoroughly enjoyed. Honestly I was rather clueless about their lives (other than they were eccentric, single and actually lived on the moors). I even remained annoyingly confused about who was who, who wrote what, despite the fact I have a degree in Lit. Now I know for sure it was Charlotte who wrote Wuthering Heights which I loved with a passion when I was young. I read it twice, watched every movie rendition feverishly and was fascinated by what I had always believed were early feminist authors. So now I know one of my all-time favourite authors was also a keen dresser!

  4. Pauline says:

    No, Emily wrote Wuthering Heights. Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre. If you want a feminist text, read Anne’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

  5. Nadine Lindstrom says:

    So interesting – thank you, Karen!
    Do you still have the draft of your own book? Might you reconsider publishing it?

  6. kalimak says:

    This is great! Thanks for satisfying my curiosity about those aspects of the Brontes’ private lives we’re not likely to find in a biography (I don’t imagine many biographers would consider fabric types a crucial detail to include in their accounts, would they?).

    Will we keep learning more about Yorkshire from the blog? I’m all for it. That’s a part of the country I haven’t had a chance to visit. But do these posts mean you’ve left London behind?

  7. Can I ask, that picture of the sewing box, where did you get it?
    I was given a similar antique sewing box for christmas and I’m curious.

  8. LinB says:

    Watched the program and thoroughly enjoyed it. Producers did a marvelous job of communicating how suffocatingly claustrophobic life could be for women at that time, in that place. And how refreshing to see the relative squalor of life for a vicar’s family, who relied so much on the “generosity” of the congregation for shelter and sustenance. AND, how very very very very very much appearances meant in that society.

  9. zilredloh says:

    This was a lovely read – thank you so much for sharing this with us. 😀 Gonna add this show to my queue now.

  10. Helena Wagstaff says:

    Thank you for this Karen, have always been fascinated by this family. I went to the exhibition at the Nstional Portrait Gallery last year (same time as the 100 years of Vogue) really interesting.

  11. norma says:

    Thanks for this interesting read. I’ve saved Walking Invisible especially so I can have another look at the clothes

  12. bracken says:

    This is really interesting. As is your book. Have you considered self-publishing?

  13. belgianseams says:

    Really interesting! Have you read Villette? I read it a few years ago when I moved to Brussels and I loved thinking about what the city around me must have been like in the Brontes’ time as I was reading it. Great book!

  14. Colleen says:

    Thanks so much for following this up- a jolly good read. I saw that dress of Charlotte’s at the Soane Museum last year and it was impossibly tiny. I was really Impressed with the dramatisation on TV where they somehow managed to make Charlotte appear tiny. There’s something fleetingly intimate about seeing clothes that belonged to people who are no longer with us.

  15. craftysurf says:

    Interesting! I had to sew my own period costume to work as a volunteer docent at the Burritt Museum in Huntsville, Alabama. There’s SO many details they incorporated during that time period (1830’s-1850’s) to make clothes past longer, even for more than one generation. I learned a lot!

    • LinB says:

      Even after machine-woven fabric became widely available, it was precious stuff. You used and re-used it for as long as it would hold out, then shredded it for stuffing pillows and quilts.

  16. gingermakes says:

    What a cool interview! Thank you so much for sharing! The sisters became a bit more alive in my mind as I imagined them worrying about ruining their grey silk! 🙂

  17. Melanie says:

    I enjoyed your interview very much, and To Walk Invisible looks like a wonderful program. I haven’t been able to find it available for viewing in Canada yet, but I’ll keep my eyes open.

  18. Janet says:

    I lapped up To Walk Invisible, partly because it was such a different take from the sanitised version of their lives that I was fed at school – Branwell’s alcoholism was never mentioned; instead there were just dark hints that he might have been a bit lazy. I was shocked to see how much of the family’s money and efforts were given over to Branwell, and how self-reliant the three sisters had to become as a result. In a world where women were expected to be almost peripheral characters supporting male leads, I imagine Charlotte would have used her wardrobe to counteract people’s preconceptions of female writers at that time.

  19. Mags says:

    Very interesting Karen. I was born on Haworth so have a particular interest. I think they were amazing women to do what they did in that time especially in the north. I love the idea of Emily without the petticoats! Freedom indeed!

  20. Beth says:

    Your article has inspired me to look more deeply into what is behind the clothes I see on exhibit everywhere. Thank you.

  21. How fascinating! But you only display one dress (pretty and all)… we want more!!
    Could you recommend us some good biography of the sisters?

  22. Colleen says:

    I can’t think of anything that pleases me more — early writing by women and historical facts of dressmaking and sewing. When I got my degree I wasn’t a serious sewer — or knitting. I love my degree in Literature and Writing, but if I had it to do over I would probably study Textile History. Somebody needs to write the perfect book for me, stat!!!! In the meantime, this does quite nicely! I saved “To Walk Invisible” and I’m waiting for the perfect time to watch it — preferably on a dark and stormy night! Cheers, dear.

    • LinB says:

      You may perhaps enjoy reading the historical clothing textbooks by Janet Arnold, which include her series “Patterns of Fashion. They will certainly be available through a university or college library, if you don’t find them in a municipal library. Or, order them from a bookseller … not sure they are still in print. (They should never go out of print, in this woman’s opinion.)

    • Mary_in_AZ says:

      Colleen,
      Why are you waiting for someone else to write the book? You have the literary background, the writing skills, the interest, Your perspective as a sewist would make a more interesting read than anyone else could provide!

  23. I noticed the little acorn measuring tapes (at least I’m guessing that’s what they are), and Thread Theory sells some like that in their shop!!! I wonder if the artisan that makes theirs was inspired by ones like this!

  24. Catherine says:

    This is a wonderful post, Karen. Thank you. I, like you, grew up with the Brontes and have seen Charlottes tiny gowns, gloves and umbrellas at the museum in Haworth.

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