We have launched a new website and are reviewing this page. Find out more
Robert Dighton, 'January from a series of Allegorical representations of the months', about 1785. Museum number E.33-1947

'January', from 'The Months', watercolour by Robert Dighton, Great Britain, about 1785. Museum no. E.33-1947

Most of these designs were bequeathed to the Museum as a group in 1973. Nothing is known of their origin and provenance, but they appear to have come from the archive of an 18th-century retailer based in London. They were intended for use on the light muslin gowns, petticoats and aprons that were so fashionable at the period.

The designs are clearly the work of a professional pattern drawer. Many such designers worked in London, retailing their work through linen drapers and lacemakers. The patterns would have been used by professional embroiderers, but also by amateurs, buying or borrowing them from the retailer.

Hand-written inscriptions suggest how the designs might have been used, and by whom. Many relate to a network of wealthy friends and relations, including Lady Middleton, who lived in the country but came up to London for the season.

'Lady Middleton's pattern' is a key to revealing a whole web of relationships within a group of neighbours and relatives in East Sussex.

Lady Middleton was born Frances Pelham, the daughter of the 1st Earl of Chichester, of Stanmer Park near Brighton. She married in 1778 and died in childbirth in 1783. Her sister Emily is also mentioned in the inscriptions. Another sister, Lucy, married the 1st Earl of Sheffield, of nearby Sheffield Place, in 1794. Lucy's stepdaughter, Maria Josepha Holroyd, is also named on the patterns and was a friend of Miss Thrale. It is clear from the inscriptions that these women were willing to share an embroidery design with a friend or relative.


The designs are pierced with pinholes indicating that they were pinned or tacked to fabric stretched on a tambour or embroidery frame. The patterns are in pen and ink so that they could be seen through muslin or gauze.

According to Saint-Aubin who described whitework embroidery in his 'L'Art du Brodeur', published in 1770, the design was never drawn directly onto the material but 'with small stitches one bastes the muslin over the design which has been drawn on paper or parchment.' The embroiderer could then work directly from the design beneath.

These designs are not pricked and pounced wherein the lines of the design are pricked and then the surface rubbed with powder transferring the pattern through the pinholes to the textile beneath (pouncing). The lack of pricking and pouncing shows that these designs are for embroidery on muslin.

Professional design and embroidery

Both amateurs and professionals used the technique of tacking designs to muslin or gauze on a tambour or embroidery frame. Most, if not all, of the clients whose names are inscribed on the designs could have used them to embroider from themselves because elite women were accomplished at needlework.

In some cases, these designs could have been embroidered professionally for the clients as a ready-made dress. The patterns have a client's name instead of a number for cross-reference with a client book. This numberless system suggests a business with an easily identifiable clientele and a personal service.

Become a V&A Member

V&A Members enjoy a wealth of benefits, including free entry to exhibitions, previews, exciting events and the V&A Members’ Room. In addition, you will be supporting the vital work of the V&A.

Buy or Renew Membership Online