Over ten years ago, whilst browsing in a second hand bookshop, I stumbled across a copy of a 1980s patchwork book Learn Patchwork, written by Lynette Merlin Syme. I’m not sure what attracted me to the book at the time for I had no idea of the treasure inside until I returned home.
I had been a fan of Jane Austen’s novels for many years. So imagine my delight when I sat down to look at my purchase, and discovered photos of a coverlet attributed to Jane Austen, her sister Cassandra and their mother. The making of this coverlet is referred to in one of Jane’s letters to Cassandra in 1811. Jane at this time was finalising Sense and Sensibility and revising Pride and Prejudice. On the world stage that year, Franz Liszt was born, and George Prince of Wales became Regent, beginning the ‘Regency’ period.
An Austen Coverlet of my own was definitely on my ‘to do’ list. But there were several problems I had to solve before I could embark on this project.
Firstly, I needed to see the quilt as a whole; there were two photos in the book.
In the first, Jane’s coverlet had been draped over what looks like a rather old garden bench. Conservators would be horrified these days. In the second photo the coverlet was photographed hanging against a wall. It hung in folds and the top of the coverlet appeared to have been tucked over a rod. I couldn’t see enough.
Also, as I studied the pattern in the book, I came to the realisation that it differed from the original in several ways, of which anyone wishing to create something authentic should be aware.
- The line drawing shows the outer tiny diamonds as being a quarter of the size of the middle-sized diamonds, when in truth they are a ninth.
- Jane’s quilt has 4½ middle-sized diamonds either side of the centerpiece, not five as the pattern showed, which results in the corners where the middle sized diamonds and the outer tiny diamonds meet, failing to come out correctly in the piecing.
- The use of diamonds with 120 and 60 degree angles, as shown in the diagram, would make the coverlet’s finished proportions both longer and narrower than Jane’s.
By studying the photos, I tried to work out how many fabrics had been used, and their placement. I decided to recreate the look and colouring of Jane’s coverlet as best I could, and started to collect suitable fabrics, with an eye to replicating style, pattern size and color placement . Since I completed this replica, I have since found other fabrics which I feel would have represented the original fabrics better. I must note here that I have not been to see the original, and thus have only photos to go by. Further research on the internet, and a postcard from the Jane Austen House Museum at Chawton, gave me differing tones. A research paper by JAS of Chicago, (who made a quilt from the pattern in the book) led me to believe that dyes may have changed in the near 200 years since it was made.
Thus, my replica recreates the coverlet only as best I could. I am also unsure exactly how many different fabrics are in the coverlet – without closer study and clearer photos I am unable to arrive at an exact number.
I am extremely grateful to the Jane Austen House Museum who allowed me access to the notes and photos of the most recently completed conservation work. While these included the first photo I had ever seen of the coverlet laid out flat, they too did not clearly show the combination of fabrics in the outer border. Close perusal, with an eye to the percentage of stripes, florals etc used, allowed me to reproduce the ‘look’ of the original. Although the middle-sized diamonds were a little easier to see, it was still difficult to work out exactly how many different ones there are. These are placed in rows of light and medium colouring, while the outer border has darker tonings.
While it was easy to see that the middle-sized diamonds were in a pattern, I was stunned to discover that the tiny diamonds that make up the outer border were a mirror image left to right, which fascinated me. There are over 2000 of such diamonds, which says something of the personalities of Jane and Cassandra Austen and their mother. Such attention to detail! The Austen coverlet is a masterpiece in both design and colour value placement.
Working out the maths
I am fortunate in having a husband with an engineering background. His drafting skills on the computer determined the finished dimensions of the coverlet, and made the construction achievable. I had already decided that the diamond used was not the usual 120/60 degree normally used in patchwork, even in this era. We used a protractor and decided that the angles were closer to 110/70 degrees, which gave a broader diamond. Why the Austens chose to use a diamond of these angles isn’t known. Maybe it was to accommodate the chintz centerpiece at its best? This, and determining that the sashings are one third of the middle sized diamonds, and deciding to set the sashings at one inch and therefore the middle sized diamonds at three, gave us an overall finished measurement of 96 x 76 inches. My investigations have not revealed an exact measurement of the Austen coverlet. The accepted approximate size is 96 x 72 inches.
After assembling my chosen fabrics, we set about putting them together. The Austens had ‘fussy’ cut many of the fabrics, centering motifs. As we were putting the coverlet together by machine this presented a few problems. My husband again was invaluable at this time, and also assisted with cutting and ironing.
It was a very time-consuming project, but after wanting to make this replica for so long, it was rewarding to finally see it coming together.
After the top was complete, I faced the dilemma of whether to quilt it or not. Jane’s is not quilted; this is why it is called a ‘coverlet’ and not a quilt. I originally wanted to make a quilt we could use, but after coming this far, decided to keep as close to the original construction as possible.
The coverlet is not bound as normal quilts are but the top edge is turned to the back and slip stitched, and the quilt top is held by small stitches to the backing to stop it ballooning.
I found researching and making my replica a wonderful experience. Many times I’ve wondered about the evolution of the Austen quilt. Where did the original design come from? A church window? A tile mosaic? In my research I have not come across another coverlet or quilt that is remotely similar. And my Austen journey isn’t over. I have become motivated to undertake some ‘Austen inspired’ projects of my own design. You can see one completed quilts, ‘Mansfield Park’ on My Quilt Gallery Page, and ‘Cassandra’s Sampler’ and ‘Chawton’ among my Current Projects. I am also in the process of making another replica of the Austen Coverlet, by hand.