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Drizzling In The Drawing Room

by J. Marie Croft, author of A Golden Opportunity

For most women of the Georgian era, working with needle and thread was an essential part of their education and of their daily lives. Needlework was mentioned in Jane Austen’s letters as well as in her creative writing. While sitting with family, chatting with callers, or—in Elizabeth Bennet’s case—attempting to conceal distress and diversion, Austen’s female characters often found occupation for their hands in either plain or fancy sewing.

Once handcrafted by both male and female artisans, embroidery was a highly-desired skill, done at great expense. Training, time, and talent were required to create intricately detailed designs on cloth and other materials. Owning such opulent textiles—tapestries, garments of royalty or nobility, church vestments and hangings, military and other regalia—was a symbol of affluence, social status, and power. By Austen’s time, however, such needlecraft was considered ‘just women’s work’. Although it may have been exquisite, a lady’s embroidery no longer was seen as a fine-art form.

Thousands of years ago, artisans found ways to add the gleam of gold to their embroidered textiles. Associated with divinity, the precious metal is immune from rust and symbolises incorruptibility and immortality, triumph and superiority. It is malleable, and it reflects light. At first, narrow strips of gold were held in place on the cloth’s surface with almost invisible stitches. Later, delicate strands of gold were wrapped around a core of linen or silk, thus producing metal thread.


Throughout the eighteenth century and into the Regency, embroidery featuring gold, silver, or copper thread appeared as embellishments on articles of clothing such as gentlemen’s formal waistcoats and ladies’ gowns. However, the use of goldwork waned by the second quarter of the nineteenth century due to its rising cost and the quality of machine-loomed textiles. Even monarchs made do with royal heirlooms, but gold trim continued to appear on military uniforms.

Most of the lavish, eighteenth-century clothing of the royal court at Versailles was destroyed during the French Revolution. Portraits, however, clearly depict the fashion and craftsmanship of that period. In the 1760s and 1770s, elite women at Versailles must have been either terribly bored or in need of a little extra pin money. Their idle hands engaged in a social pastime more destructive than constructive, and the craze known as parfilage was quite the opposite of goldwork embroidery. Undertaken in luxurious salons, the careful picking of precious metal threads from textiles was a means of displaying the graceful turn of a lady’s hand while she chatted with others in her circle.

According to Women in France During the Eighteenth Century, Volume II, (1850), by Irish novelist Julia Kavanagh: “…many ladies had no graver occupation than parfilage, which consisted in unravelling the gold from the silk thread in the rich lace then worn by men of rank. The women solicited, for this purpose, the old lace of the cast-off clothes belonging to their male friends; and, in their eagerness, they often cut off and seized upon that which was new. This fashion was carried to such an extent that the presents offered to ladies on New Year’s Day consisted almost exclusively of toys made of gold thread, and all destined to be unravelled. This zeal in favour of parfilage was not wholly disinterested. The gold, when separated from the silk, was always sold, and it was calculated that a clever parfileuse could earn about a hundred louis a year with this lucrative amusement.”

A parfileuse was a woman who practised parfilage. The toys mentioned were pantins, and they were crafted in the shapes of animals, birds, pantomime figures, etc. Once picked and sold to a goldsmith, the precious metal threads would have been melted down and made into bullion. A louis was a gold coin issued in France between 1640 and 1793.

Parfilage quickly spread throughout Europe. In Austria of 1770, Lady Mary Coke, an English noblewoman known for her letters and private journals, wrote of an evening at the home of a princess: “All the ladies who do not play at cards pick gold. ’Tis the most general fashion I ever saw. They all carry their bags in their pockets.” A literary newsletter written by Baron von Grimm referred to a ‘furor’ for parfilage in the winter of 1773. In the 1782 French novel Adèle et Théodore, a male character—inspired by a real-life incident involving a duke being attacked by ten parfileuses—says, “…tearing away my coat and packing all my fringes and galloons into their work bags.” A galloon is an ornamental woven, embroidered, or braided trim typically made of gold or silver thread.

Decorative parfilage work bags typically held the fabric being picked apart, a spool or shuttle upon which to wind the salvaged metal strands, and a decorative tool set with stiletto (for lifting and extracting thread), a small knife and/or a tiny pair of sharp scissors.

Parfilage crossed the Channel in the late-eighteenth century and was taken up by nobles in England where it underwent a name change. Stripping delicate metal threads from draperies, tapestries, cushions, etc., caused tiny flecks of gold or silver to fall—like fine drops of drizzle—from their core of silk or linen. Ergo, the pastime became known as ‘drizzling’, and not only ladies took up the activity.

 In 1816, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfield married Princess Charlotte, the only child of the Prince of Wales (later, King George IV). By late 1817, Leopold and the entire kingdom went into deep mourning upon the death of the princess and their stillborn son. Thereafter, Leopold took up his late-wife’s tortoiseshell drizzling box, became obsessed with the pastime, and carried the box with him almost everywhere he went.

After his year of mourning, Leopold took a German actress as his mistress. During his visits to her, he diligently drizzled while she read aloud or played the pianoforte. Long after their liaison ended, the actress, Karoline Bauer, wrote her memoirs and made mention of Leopold’s obsession. “Of much that was incomprehensible in this princely wooer, this ‘drizzling’ of his I found the most incomprehensible. And how I hated drizzling! Whenever I saw the prince, followed by his groom with that awful drizzling-box, alight from his carriage, at once I felt the near approach of a yawning-fit. And even to this day, whilst I write down this hateful and dreaded word, after more than a generation, I feel my very heart cramped by the same distressing tendency to yawn.”

As a social activity, the parfilage fad fell out of fashion by the latter half of the Regency, but some members of the elite continued to drizzle in private. Even when he became King of Belgium, Prince Leopold never tired of picking metal thread from textiles. Apparently, in one year he had salvaged enough silver to have a soup tureen made for his niece, the future Queen Victoria.

While none of Jane Austen’s characters ever resorted to parfilage, a young lady from Pride and Prejudice does drizzle in my novella, A Golden Opportunity. One might say she’s a rather ‘crafty’ person in that story.




References and Further Reading:


Stitching Women: A Short History of Embroidery and What It Means in the Novels of Jane Austen by Robin Henry -


Regency Crafts & Pastimes by Emily Hendrickson -


Drizzling: A Peculiar Past Time by Peter Kaellgren -



Of Parfilage or Drizzling Through the Regency by Kathryn Kane -

Image Sources: 

Public Domain via Wikipedia or Wikimedia Commons


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Feb 22

I remember vaguely hearing about this before, but I never really thought about it. How interesting—and destructive! I wonder if my cats are trying to remove (to them) interesting threads when they scratch the furniture and drapes…:) Thanks for the history lesson & congrats on the new book!

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