Sarah Ann Cunliffe (born active 1851 - died about late 19th century)
Saffron Walden, Essex
Hand-knitted in cotton thread
Height 62 cm x Width 60 cm
Museum no. T.45-1964
Given by Mrs G. Wraith
This extraordinary baby's gown won third prize in the handknitting section of the Great Exhibition. It is important not only as a superb example of needlework skill, but also because the precise details of its making have survived.
The gown is worked in leaf and diamond patterns with scallops at the hem and neck. It would have been knitted on extremely fine needles. These patterns of open stitches are similar to those of the knitted Shetland 'lace' shawls popular in the 1840s.
One of the strengths of the Great Exhibitions was its liberal attitude to both machine and handmade objects. Each method had its advantages and beauties; the Great Exhibition welcomed all media. Hand knitting featured prominently in the knitwear section of the Great Exhibition. It was seen as an artistic craft and the submissions displayed great virtuosity in materials and design. Some of the more unusual entries included a knitted landscape, a shawl knitted with a prayer for the Houses of Parliament, and a pair of cuffs, hand-spun and knitted from the wool of French poodles.
In the mid-19th century, hand knitting was considered a very useful skill for the poorer members of society. Knitting, along with other needle arts, was taught in orphanages and poor houses. A number of the hand knitting submissions to the Great Exhibition were from children and disabled adults and were noted for the remarkable proficiency they demonstrated.