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Make it “Work” -- slang for embroidery

The term “work” was, historically, the short-hand version of “needlework.”  You’ll see diary entries from 17th century women saying they were “at their work in the morning.”  When you read Jane Austen, she peppers very passing references throughout her novels to “work.” (As a side-note, Jane Austen writes relatively infrequently about “work” and I strongly suspect that she has little love for the activity).

In Sense and Sensibility, Mrs. Dashwood returns to Elinor (her eldest) after comforting Marianne (her middle daughter, recently heartbroken), and  starts a conversation, “Our dear Willoughby is now some miles from Barton, Elinor,” said she as she sat down to work.” That “work” at the end of the sentence is referring specifically to embroidery -- it being such a common activity for women in a domestic setting that “needlework” easily shortens to “work.”  And the accessories were also referred to with the shortened “work” description. Again, Sense and Sensibility: “their work-bags searched, and their knives and scissars stolen away…” where work-bag is a needle work bag.

This image captures what it means to be at work with the project, frame, tools, a work box, in a scene of productive domesticity.

Prior to the industrial revolution and machines that could embroider at astounding speeds, a woman’s “work” or needlework was a highly valued economic contribution to the family.  A gentry-class family could secure their social standing through the furnishings in their home, including embroidered pillows, cushions, bed hangings, curtains, and their own personal clothing adornments.  Embroidery was a way for women to add to the worth of their family. “Women’s work” was not just something to keep women busy.

This lovely engraving from the Folger Shakespeare Library shows women at a variety of work including surface embroidery using a slate frame, in-hand work, and spinning wool to create thread (published in Antwerp, 1573).  The scene includes a work basket, scissors, and a small dog curled up in sleep as a symbol of peace, domesticity, and fidelity.

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