In the Steps of Jane Gaugain
From the quiet restraint of the Regency buildings that line Edinburgh’s George Street, you would never guess that this, a century and a half ago, was the scene of a knitting revolution. Here the ladies of the city gathered to exchange “receipts,” compare their success with the latest stitch patterns, admire vibrant new shades of yarn, or purchase pins, embellishments, and notions. These fashionable and wealthy knitters beat a path to a shop at the street’s West end, where their every knitterly want might be supplied. Here, at number 63 George Street, they found Mrs Jane Gaugain, author, designer and entrepreneur, whose Edinburgh shop was the vanguard of the Victorian knitting revolution.
Born Jane Alison, tailor’s daughter, at the turn of the nineteenth century, Jane married a merchant with property on the edge of Edinburgh’s Old Town. Capitalising on the relaxation of trade after the Napoleonic wars, Jane’s husband imported “Berlin wool, French blond lace,” and “materials for ladies fancy work” to Scotland from the continent. Jane transformed her husband’s shop into a thriving haberdashery, business boomed, and, by the mid 1830s, the couple were able to move to elegant commercial premises on Frederick Street and, later, George Street, at the heart of Edinburgh’s New Town.
Jane was not merely a vendor of goods to the city’s fashionable elite. She was a woman of shrewd business sense and literary ambition. During the decades of the mid-nineteenth century, the culture of knitting underwent a profound change, and Jane Gaugain turned this transformation to profitable advantage. While rural workers in the English North and Scottish Borders still turned out stockings for necessity (and were very poorly paid for doing so), a new generation of wealthy, urban needlewomen had begun to emerge for whom knitting was about luxury and leisure, rather than utility or labour “They have borrowed this fashionable employment,” remarked one Victorian magazine, “from the ladies of Germany,” and indeed, the Saxe-Coburg monarchy, and a royal fondness for Berlin wool, meant that continental knitting was very much a la mode. Edinburgh’s well-to-do knitters were less interested in warm, durable stockings than they were in lacy tippets and elegant muffatees. And, when they came to buy a few ounces of soft, fingering-weight Shetland or Merino from the stylish shop at 63 George Street, they also needed pattern instructions for the delicate shawl for which the yarn was intended. Jane Gaugain was there to provide all of this for them.
Jane had been writing and circulating patterns on request throughout the 1830s and, in 1840, published the first volume of her Lady’s Assistant in Knitting, Netting, and Crochet to immediate acclaim. The book was conveniently pocket-sized, and the patterns were written using her own unique system of pattern notation—the first to be devised and widely used in Anglo-American knitting until the “K1, P1” abbreviations still in use today. “My method of explaining the receipts, though novel, has been found to answer the purpose completely,” Gaugain wrote, “giving a simple and clear explanation by means of letters and figures, which are easily reduced to practice.” The Lady’s Assistant included patterns for shawls, caps, purses, counterpanes, and a wide range of coloured and open-work designs. The style was crisp, easy to follow, and proved wildly popular. In its first year of publication, the book’s list of eminent subscribers and patrons swelled to several hundred, and was headed by the dowager Queen Adelaide. “It affords me much pleasure,” Gaugain wrote with no small degree of pride in the preface to her fourth edition, “that the reception [the book] has met with has exceeded my most sanguine expectations.”
But not everyone in Edinburgh was excited by the fashionable knitting revolution. Just as Jane Gaugain’s Lady’s Assistant was published, Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine declared itself entirely scornful of new books that were:
written solely to instruct ladies in the pretty make believe industry, or elaborate idleness, of knitting all sorts of things in all sorts of crinkum-crankum ways. . . We deny any woman engaged in these knitting processes which must require constant counting of stitches and un-distracted attention, to enjoy her own quiet thoughts. The honeycomb stitch, the ladder stitch, the diamond knitting, the porcupine boa, and the double eyelet knitting are surely enough to drive any woman mad.
But despite Tait’s predictable Victorian suspicion of the effects of complicated knitting on women’s minds, the “madness” for Gaugain’s patterns appeared to be endemic. Throughout the 1840s and 50s, she published numerous additional volumes; updated her shawls to accommodate the “Maltese” and “Swiss” patterns then in vogue; and produced several beautifully illustrated appendices to her Lady’s Assistant. By request, she began to include charted paper and instructions for the enterprising knitter to work out their own designs, and added a mail-order service to her Edinburgh shop to meet demand. “The materials requisite for the various receipts in Mrs G’s works can be forwarded by post to any part of the Kingdom,” one advertisement announced. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (1853), the village ladies (all keen knitters) take advantage of such offers, and are encouraged to buy Shetland wool by post from Edinburgh. Miss Matty and Miss Pole might well have been buying Gaugain’s yarn, and they would almost certainly have seen her Lady’s Assistant. It was the best-selling knitting book of the era, reaching a huge audience on both sides of the Atlantic, and finally running to an impressive twenty-two editions.
Yet despite the immense popularity of Jane’s books, her life was not particularly rosy. Her marriage was evidently unhappy, and by 1851, she and her husband lived apart. Only one of her six children (a daughter) survived to adulthood, and Jane suffered for many years from tuberculosis, from which she finally died in 1860. Coloured by deep private suffering and sad deaths, her story perhaps seems a familiar nineteenth-century one. But far less familiar is the tale of a girl from humble beginnings who built a successful business in Scotland’s first city; who popularised knitting for Edinburgh’s fashionable classes; and whose innovatory method of pattern-writing secured her international renown. Jane’s books remain important documents of Scottish textile history, and continue to inspire contemporary designs—from intricate lace shawls to fabulous knitted pineapples. She is buried in Edinburgh’s Dean Cemetery, near to the picturesque waters of Leith, whose steady flow once turned the wheels of the woollen mills that stood beside the river.
Thanks to Ruth Churchman and to Naomi Tarrant, for generously sharing her work on Jane Gaugain.
Edited to add: you can read more about Gaugain in Naomi Tarrant’s recent article: ‘Mrs Jane Gaugain, Edinburgh’s Celebrated Author of Knitting Manuals’ in The Scottish Genealogist, journal of the Scottish Genealogy Society, vol.LXIII, pp3-12, March 2016.