Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Queen Victoria's Quilts: Lost in Translation

Queen Victoria, watercolor, 1838 
Alfred Edward Chalon 
Collection of the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh

This first portrait of the new Queen includes her workbag and needlework in her lap.

Embroidery on silk?

And here she is at the end of her very long reign with something similar, probably in the form of a lap robe. Most of these pictures of the Queen are in the Royal Collection Trust, an incredible collection of images.

Needlework was a life-long pastime. After her eldest daughter's first child the Queen sent her "a little cushion for your back when you are on your sofa, every stitch of which I have worked myself with the English colours...." Berlin work, or needlepoint, perhaps.

When daughter Alice gave birth to her first son in 1868 she wrote to her mother.
"I am on my sofa in my sitting-room with all your dear photos, &c., around me, and your pretty quilt over me."
In January, 1859 she made a bedcover for her first grandchild, telling mother-to-be Princess Victoria she had been working on it
"since September---and which (with the exception of the marking and joining the long stripes) I have done every stitch of myself. You know that Mama has very little time and that I can only work after dinner when we have no visitors, therefore it was longer about than it otherwise would have been, but it gave me such pleasure that I am quite grieved to have finished it. Many doubted I should get it ready in time."
 This sounds like a quilted piece to me---what with the marking, but....

In best Victorian fashion, her hands were rarely idle.
The overfed dog is Dacko. (The German word for dachshund was
Dackel at the time.)

Many references have been published about Queen Victoria making quilts and for years I looked for some patchwork or quilted items attributed to her hand. But now I realize the semantic problem: The quilts the Queen made were knitted or crocheted--- Americans today might call them knitted blankets, throws or afghans, while British reporters and the Queen and her family called them quilts.

One needle or two? Knitting or crochet?

Throughout her reign Victoria was a knitter and did crochetwork. When her children were young she knit stockings for them, according to a woman who saw her at work on an 1845 visit to Prussia. In January, 1871 she wrote daughter Vicky to tell son-in-law, "Dear Fritz I have just croche'd him a comforter which it gave me much pleasure to do." 

The Netley Hospital

The Queen's knitting and crocheting was often charity work. The royal public relations office made much of her gifts to veterans' hospitals, particularly the Royal Victoria Military Hospital, Netley in Southampton, built according to her direction after the Crimean War. In 1883 an American medical journal noted that the Queen had given "five large Berlin-wool quilts," confusing terminology, but now I'd guess the quilts were knitted from high quality German wools. Victoria made one, Princess Beatrice, her youngest daughter, made another and three were knitted by her ladies although the queen enlarged each with a border.

Beatrice's husband reported that knitting was a regular after-dinner event, something he considered quite dull. He worked to change the evening schedule, re-introducing musicales and family theatrical events. 

 Feodora, Princess of Hohenlohe-Langenburg (1807-1872)

The Queen's older sister Princess Feodora also made quilts but again I was disappointed to figure out they were not patchwork or quilted. In 1867 Feodora complained of  "rheumatism". "My hands are so bad that I cannot even knit or do crochetwork." In May, 1872,  she resumed working on a quilt for Victoria. "The quilt I worked myself for you has gone at last; it is directed to you at Buckingham Palace...I hope you will use it sometimes and think of your old sister." Feodora died a few months later.

Princess Beatrice reading the newspaper to her mother who is knitting or crocheting, 1895

Victoria Knitting Quilts for the Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley, 1886, by
Alexander Melville. Daughters Helena and Beatrice at left and right.
Melville painted two pictures of the scene.

Queen Victoria Knitting Quilts by Alexander Melville, 1887
Sold at Bonham's Auctions a few years ago.
In 1862 Theodore Roosevelt's family sold ticket for a benefit
"Afghan" raffle to Abraham & Mary Lincoln. The Afghan
must have looked much like this.

Visiting veterans of the Crimean War 1856
by Jerry Barrett. National Portrait Gallery


During the Crimean War, according to biographer Helen Rappaport, "The Queen and her daughters  knitted ferociously, turning out scarves, mittens and socks." They also created cardigans, front buttoning waistcoats, named after Lord Cardigan who led the Charge of the Light Brigade, and balaclavas, named for a battle, what we'd call ski masks.

During the Boer Wars at the end of the century she crocheted a few khaki
scarves for lucky soldiers with her initials and a medal.

Her monogram VRI: Victoria Queen & Empress
One sold at auction last year.

This photo was taken the same day as the one with Dacko above.

The Queen also spun at a wheel and was photographed working in 1865, an image sold as a carte-de-visite. (Is she spinning Scottish flax?) Spinning seems to have been a relaxation for the "Widow of Windsor," particularly at her home in Scotland while listening to family or ladies reading Robert Burns's poetry. She told daughter Vicky that one of the Scots at Balmoral complimented her: "Ye spin as well as any old woman in the country."

Commemorative bandana from the Centennial Exhibition

The Queen displayed her hand-spun linen napkins at America's 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

But: No Patchwork; No Quilting. After all this poking into the Queen's needlework basket I decided to design a Victoria Quilt-Along for the winter. More soon.

Bonham's also sold this dressed picture of Queen
Victoria admiring Prince Albert's portrait, a fabric collage
to celebrate their engagement by an anonymous needleworker. 


  1. Although it wasn't quilting as we call it, I love reading the history of the royals with any handiwork. Looking forward to seeing what you come up with in the winter QAL!

  2. Well I never knew that! Thank you for a nice insight to our old Queen.

  3. It's lovely to see a famous person working on any kind of needlework. I'm annoyed by current
    TV shows and sitcoms that NEVER show anyone working on needlework. What do these people do all evening??? I have to be working on something most of the time!...arden

  4. Victoria Quilt Along! Can't wait to hear more!

  5. Fascinating post. I shall visit that beautiful painting next time I'm at the National Gallery in Edinburgh.

  6. So looking forward to what you have come up with for the Victoria Quilt Along! Thanks!

  7. Thank you for such an interesting post. I'm currently watching the excellent BBC series "Victoria" so I'm very interested in what the Victoria Quilt Along will be.

  8. Loving all of this information about Queen Victoria. I wish I had known all of this when I was a civil war re-enactor.
    Can't wait to see what the Victoria Quilt Along is all about.