The crafts produced and consumed by women during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for the domestic interior are worth investigating to try to unravel why women at various levels of society took up home crafts and what their motives were for doing so. At one level, it may have been artistic self-expression; at another level a product of a commitment to household duty or financial necessity, or on a third level it may have been for entertainment or pastime. These motivations seem to reflect the more recently labelled DIY home improvements. The fact that particular crafts were associated with women was based partly on the determinist philosophies of the eighteenth century. These were predicated on distinctions that supposed that each gender had inherently different faculties. In the fields of art and crafts, this led to the distinction between amateur women and professional men, and more especially, the equating of specific crafts with women's work and homemaking. This gendering, which was preached both in school and in print, meant that by the mid-eighteenth century, any visual sensibility women had developed was particularly directed towards their homes. The broad aims of this paper are therefore to investigate the nature of the work undertaken, the role it played in certain women's lives, how it reflected social attitudes of the period, and its relationship with the home during the period 1750–1900. Finally, the article will reflect on how and in what different ways women's domestic arts and crafts could be considered as precursors to the DIY of today.


Do It Yourself (DIY) is both a producing and a consuming culture. The ‘raw materials’ that are worked upon by amateurs are transformed and manipulated into an artefact which is then consumed by them and their family.1 It is also more than this. DIY represents the individual through self-expression and a sense of self-worth; it may be a pastime or hobby; and it is good ‘husbandry’ or ‘housewifery’ as it is usually practical, thrifty and often self-sufficient. It is also culturally expressive. Given these factors, investigations into versions of DIY will benefit from the interdisciplinary approach that is taken here to consider them. The issues of production, consumption, mediation, gender and identity will all be considered as links contributing to the domestic creativity that is an important part of the making and the meaning of homes. Kevin Melchionne suggests that this ‘creativity resided not just in the construction of the meaning of the commodity, but more importantly in the physical fashioning of the final product’.2 This domestic work provides added meaning, thus enshrining the personal ‘value added’ to projects and objects, and making DIY a fascinating conjunction of production and consumption. It seems clear that this process is by no means new. On the face of it, DIY, (in the sense that it relates to the improvement and decoration of the home by the occupier), seems to have many similarities with handcrafted artefacts made by women in and for the home throughout the period under review. The work undertaken to improve the home was unpaid, it occupied spare time, it sometimes used kits of partly finished materials and was at times a way of being thrifty. There was also often a sense of satisfaction in being able to personalize and customize the home.3

As Melchionne points out, however, modern DIY is handwork but not craft, is labour saving but not a convenience, and is done in leisure time but is often not a hobby.4 Melchionne distinguishes between handwork and craft where craft allows diversity, uniqueness and individuality, as opposed to regulated work using standardized parts. Nevertheless, certain aspects of craftwork do have regularity and a repetitive aspect to them, and handwork can clearly be diverse and unique, hence the distinctions are not so clear-cut. Melchionne's suggestion that DIY ‘represents a theoretically important hybrid of modern consumerism and traditional handiwork’5 makes a tentative link with historical crafts, which must include the products of women's domestic handicrafts.

This prehistory of DIY offers an opportunity to investigate the reasons why people want to ‘do-it-themselves’ and to see if there is some common ground between the historic and the contemporary attitudes. I will also argue that the early history of modern DIY shows that ‘handwork’ and ‘craftwork’, especially that undertaken by women in a domestic situation, could be considered as creative or interpretative consumption. Although it was inherently labour intensive it may also have been undertaken as a leisure pursuit of sorts. The same could be said for modern DIY.

Women and handicrafts

Women's activity in the home, in a non-commercial capacity, has often been regarded as essentially selfless. ‘Keeping up appearances’ has, however, been a motivation for much domestic work and it may be argued that crafts, especially in the form of DIY, may bridge the gap between altruism and self-respect.

The crafts produced and consumed by women during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for the domestic interior are therefore worth investigating in an attempt to try to unravel why women at various levels of society took up craftwork and what their motives were for doing so. On one level, it may have been artistic self-expression. The acquisition of craft expertise also gave women a marketable skill. Conversely, accomplishments helped class discrimination where particular craft knowledge could act as an exclusionary device. On another level, it became a product of a commitment to household duty, where the role of women as ‘arrangers’ and often producers of comfort helped to reflect their household's social status. This is not straightforward. The use of art and craft skills was clearly a financial necessity in some households, whereas in others this element was far less important. On a third level the work may have been for entertainment or pastime. In addition, this was also linked to the issue of encouraging women to use their ‘spare’ time productively. There was also a tendency for women to be regarded as capable only of copying but not of using their own imagination. This last concern reflects the nature of some DIY projects where ready-made plans, advice books and designs, as well as pre-prepared materials were the mainstay of the process of assemblage.

Wherever one looks, there is a basic premise that must be borne in mind; this was that the eighteenth century saw the beginning of a decline in home-based economic production and much work that was done for the home had little commercial value. In addition, the fact that particular crafts were associated with women was in part based on the determinist philosophies of the eighteenth century. These were predicated on gendered distinctions, which supposed that each gender had inherently different faculties. This meant that for women, gendering as it affected craft was based on the male-expressed precept that ‘Nature appears to have formed the faculties of [the female] sex for the most part with less vigour than those of ours’.6 For these men, women were endowed with the senses and had the capacity for simple thought, but were unable to exercise judgement. In the fields of ‘art and crafts’, this led to the distinction between amateur women and professional men, and more especially, the equating of specific crafts to ‘women's work’. This gendering, which was preached both in school and in print, meant that by the mid-eighteenth century, any visual sensibility women had developed was particularly directed towards their homes. It was no less than their duty to beautify and ornament them.7

It has already been pointed out that there is more than a suggestion that a particular notion of femininity and certain of the home-making crafts apparently went together. This occurred at many levels of society whether the craft was that of a working-class woman employed as a seamstress or milliner, a decorative painteress or polisher, or of a middle-upper class ‘lady’.8 It is in the latter case that particular craft media were seen as peculiarly appropriate for these women, as the products functioned both as customizing work and as decoration in a domestic (self-expressive?) context. In addition, many of these crafts represented the female virtues of diligence, patience and perseverance especially where careful and detailed work was required [1, 2]. Rozsika Parker neatly sums this all up by saying that ‘when women embroider, it is seen not as art, but entirely as the expression of femininity’ and crucially it is categorized as craft.9

Fig 1.

Pattern for orné wool work antimacassar, Ladies Companion, 1857

Fig 1.

Pattern for orné wool work antimacassar, Ladies Companion, 1857

Fig 2.

Crazy patchwork pelmet, late nineteenth century. Norfolk Museum and Archaeology Service

Fig 2.

Crazy patchwork pelmet, late nineteenth century. Norfolk Museum and Archaeology Service

This ideology of femininity connects to a historically constructed division of art and craft, which has its roots in the Renaissance.10 The connection between women and craft has a very long history, and women have been associated particularly with the crafts of the domestic sphere. These notions were reinforced by male commentators. Whether it was Thomas Milles in 1613 saying, rather contradictorily: ‘Fear God and learn woman's housewifery/not simple samplers or silken folly’,11 or John Ruskin in his Sesames and Lilies, (1865), maintaining that ‘the woman's power is not for rule, not for battle—and her intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, management and decision’ [i.e. interpretative consumption],12 the sentiments remained the same.

The gendered distinctions of craft production and consumption in the period under review show that generally the idea of the female as the natural homemaker developed throughout. This had the effect of confirming the dichotomy of art and craft in gender terms so that even when women became increasingly ingenious and imaginative in the choice of materials and techniques with which to express themselves, it was still ‘only domestic craft’. Typical later nineteenth century advice for young women went as follows: ‘girls who are clever with their fingers can do very much towards making the home beautiful, not only by needlework, painting and drawing, and the various kinds of fancy work, but by the practice of amateur upholstery’.13

As has been shown, the idea of creativity was antithetical to the determinist's idea of the soft female character. Nevertheless, women were increasingly able to express a high degree of inventiveness, especially in the crafts associated with interior decoration. This was recognized in c.1856 when shell working was recommended in a woman's journal as being both ‘an elegant drawing room occupation, as well as one calculated to call forth the artistic taste and inventive powers of the worker’.14 An examination of the motives for undertaking these sorts of project will begin to explore the driving forces behind these early DIY projects.


The nature of women's upbringing had an important bearing on the defining of their relationships with art and craft and much else besides. Dr John Gregory identified these interactions in 1774, when he explained that female education was calculated to draw out their ‘natural softness and sensibility’. He went on to say that the role of education was to develop character and roles, although there seems to be more truth in his last sentence regarding sewing accomplishments:

The intention of your being taught needle-work, knitting and such like is not on account of the intrinsic value of all you can do with your hands, which is trifling, but to enable you to judge more perfectly of that kind of work, and to direct the execution of it in others. Another principle end is to enable you to fill up, in a tolerable agreeable way, some of the many solitary hours that you must necessarily pass at home.15

A later (male) author states the case more strongly with three good reasons why a woman should acquire skills. In 1795, John Bennett, in his Letters to a Young Lady, recommended his audience to acquire knowledge to ‘fill up your leisure hours, raise your taste above fantastic levities, render you an agreeable friend and acquaintance, [and] qualify you for the solid duties of your station’.16

The role of companionship in craftwork is also obliquely referred to by Lady Hertford (1741), when she tells how ‘within doors we amuse ourselves (at the times we are together) in gilding picture frames, and other small things; this is so much in fashion with us at present, that I believe if our patience and pockets hold out, we shall gild all the cornices, table and chairs and stool about the house’.17 These examples demonstrate the issue of inclusion by class and gender well, but the situation was sometimes more relaxed. In 1856, Elegant Arts for Ladies in discussing the craft of potichomanie (decorating pots with pasted images) noted that when preparing the work, ‘gentlemen always enliven the circle, they assist the fair manufacturer with their advice and aid … although we doubt their ability in the niceties of cutting out…’.18

In order to support the growing interest in a wide range of crafts, tutors and teachers were employed in the tuition of young ladies. In addition, many textbooks were published with instructions in a wide range of crafts. Early examples include James Boles' The Needle's Excellency of 1631, which included illustrations for tracings to create embroidery. Robert Sayers' The Ladies Amusement or the Whole Art of Japanning Made Easy, published in 1762, which had designs ready prepared to cut out and be glued on a surface; and in 1777, Hannah Robertson's The Young Ladies' School of Arts Containing a Great Variety of Practical Receipts, in Gum-Flowers, Filigree, Japanning, Shell-Work, Gilding, … &c. By the nineteenth century, the range was plentiful, and included books, journals and magazines, all encouraging consumption of domestic crafts.

The need for something to do also encouraged the need for something new to do. In 1748, Lady Luxborough explained a new fad:

Miss Meredith writes that the present fashion is all lead carving, which ladies do themselves, by cutting India or other thin lead themselves with scissors, and shaping it into flowers, knots etc. and fixing it to wire which is afterward nailed on in the form designed; and the carving is either gilt or painted the colour of the stucco or wainscot, according as suits the place.19

In the domestic sphere, where the craft of embroidery was employed for embellishing the furnishings and apparel of the upper classes, it is evident that the motives of craftwork were often explicit. In 1770, The Lady's Magazine made clear its raison d'être:

The subjects that we may treat of are those that may tend to render your minds less amiable than your person. But as external appearance is the first inlet to the treasures of the heart, and the advantages of dress though they cannot communicate beauty, may at least make it more conspicuous, it is intended to present the sex with most elegant patterns for the tambour, embroidery or every kind of needlework.20

In an attempt to justify the craft of needlework, especially as a gender comparison, Carmen Silva said, ‘I have often pitied men—in the first place because they can't know motherhood, in the second, because they are bereft of our greatest comfort - needlework. Our needlework is so much better than smoking, it is so unobtrusive’.21 The last phrase of this quotation is resonant of the physically small space many women's domestic crafts took up.

It could be argued that during the eighteenth century some ‘crafts’ were used as an alternative art practice for women denied access to the traditional pathways, but as has already been shown, these were more often encouraged as ‘something to do’ with one's leisure time. By the nineteenth century, middle-class women were even more involved in the consumption of goods for the home and the maintenance and arrangement of their interiors. If anything, there were increasing pressures on women to apply their artistic endeavours to decorate and enhance the home for the family. Even though the range of crafts undertaken by women widened, with variations on existing themes such as Berlin woolwork and the addition of specific Victorian crafts such as featherwork and fernwork, the reasons for their adoption remained the same [3, 4]. The Habits of Good Society, 1859, explained that ‘all accomplishments have the one great merit of giving a lady something to do: something to preserve her from ennui: to console her seclusion: to arouse her in grief: to compose her to occupation in joy’.22 Discussing the production of screens using scraps of paper, Cassell's Household Guide suggested that it was useful as ‘an employment that fills up a good deal of spare time, and may be done at small expense, beyond that for the mere frame of the screen with a simple covering of black paper’.23

Fig 3.

Berlin woolwork counted canvas pattern, Caulfeild and Saward Dictionary of Needlework, 1887

Fig 3.

Berlin woolwork counted canvas pattern, Caulfeild and Saward Dictionary of Needlework, 1887

Fig 4.

Macramé lace mantelpiece trimming, Caulfeild and Saward, Dictionary of Needlework, 1887

Fig 4.

Macramé lace mantelpiece trimming, Caulfeild and Saward, Dictionary of Needlework, 1887

The development of home crafts could indicate the application of female talents and industry or alternatively it could represent the borders of angst and misery. Logan proposes that ‘the sheer number of useless decorative objects produced by women might be better viewed as a manifestation of anxiety, boredom and depression rather than a satisfying and healthy engagement with art’.24 To convey the idea that products made at home are ‘useless’ misses the point. Not only were the objects useful as decoration, but they also carried meanings for the makers who often became the users.25


Although the range of craft (or DIY) techniques was varied, such techniques often had common ground in their need for manipulative skills, and the use of materials that were clean, ready to use, easy to prepare and commercially available. For example, scrollwork or quilling, which employed paper and small decorative beads, seeds, etc. was apparently ideal. It was clean and could be completed by beginners or experienced workers alike. As with many other crafts, it had its own patterns and specialist suppliers. In 1786 The New Lady's Magazine, supplied ‘a profusion of neat elegant patterns and models of ingenuity and delicacy, suitable for tea-caddies, toilets, chimney-pieces, screens, cabinets, frames, picture ornaments etc.’ It was added that ‘the art [of filigree] affords an amusement to the female mind capable of the most pleasing and extensive variety; it may be readily acquired and pursued at a very trifling expense’.26 Not only was it amusing, it also offered the possibility of decorating and personalizing domestic objects.

Pen work was a similar case, being something that women were also encouraged to take up. Pen work was essentially fine painting and japanning, usually black and white, on small domestic items. In 1822, Ackermann's Repository featured a shop called ‘The Temple of Fancy’, which held ‘an extensive collection of handsome screens, both plain and ornamented, screen-poles, elegant stands for table-tops and chess boards, card-racks, flower ornaments, and white-wood boxes, in a variety of shapes, for painting the inlaid ebony and ivory, with every requisite useful for painting and ornamenting the same’.27 A little later, in 1827, Nathaniel Whittock's The Painters' and Glaziers' Guide included instructions to workmen for preparing pieces in readiness for ladies to decorate:

As the work in imitation of inlaid ebony and ivory is now so fashionable, and the process is in every respect similar to any other kind of japanning, it is mentioned in this place, as great inconvenience is felt by many painters from their not having the knowledge of the proper method of preparing the ground for ladies to paint upon, or of varnishing and polishing it after the painting is finished.28

This example demonstrates the limitations of those home crafts (DIY) where a professional has to prepare the groundwork.

For many consumers, the demands of skilled craftwork, as well as limitations of time and money, meant that the adopting of pre-prepared ideas and materials to create individualized products was very satisfactory. One such idea was published in a work entitled The Elegant Arts for Ladies (c. 1856) which suggested that ready-made stencilled designs on velvet would ‘look very handsome [on] a music stool, the front of pianos, ottomans, banner screens, pole-screens and borders for table cloths’.29

The importance of these ideas and practice in relation to the concepts of DIY may be seen by considering Daniel Miller's ideas about the re-working of purchased goods: ‘[The re-working] may be defined as that which translates the object from an alienable to an inalienable condition: that is, from being a symbol of estrangement and price value to being an artefact invested with particular inseparable connotations’.30

The second motive that Miller identifies: creating objects with individual meanings, is particularly related to homemaking itself. Penny Sparke has emphasized the role women played in this re-creation, which was also recreation.

The distinction between production and consumption in the Victorian interior was eroded as objects acquired in the marketplace, such as pianos and chairs, were transformed in the domestic setting by their aesthetic integration with pieces of needlework and other objects, natural and otherwise, both made and acquired by the housewife, and with ‘artistic’ arrangements also created by her.31

This process has continued into the twenty-first century. Home produced crafts and DIY projects remain important markers of self:

Where the maker of the object is also its consumer, the display of the object becomes highly significant in demonstrating the identity of the maker and the ideology of the household…then display of home crafts as the expression of symbolic creativity can be seen as demonstrative of the makers' personal identity and relationships with others [and] their class, gender, race…and also their achievements, the ways in which the sewing demonstrated learning, time spent, and aesthetic sensibility or ‘taste’.32


Although self-expression was one aspect of DIY practice, in most cases, these techniques had been mediated by other agents. In some cases, daughters might have been taught the skills by artists, in other cases, prepared schemes that only required ‘assembly’ of some sort or another were increasingly available from the eighteenth century. It was the role of advice books and other literature, however, that became increasingly important, especially in the nineteenth century. As Grace Lees-Maffei points out in a discussion on domestic design: ‘Advice is situated firmly within the category of mediation, operating as it does between the realms of production and consumption’.33 Examples of mediation have been noted above, often in relation to specific home crafts, but it was often the case that advice was offered under the broader umbrella of homemaking in general. Mrs Orrinsmith in her 1877 work entitled The Drawing Room was clearly ambivalent about advice for homemaking. On the one hand, she decried decorators and retailers for giving advice, but on the other wrote her own treatise on what was and was not tasteful. She explained in her introduction: ‘Should we continue to be contented to be told, not caring to learn to feel, that certain harmonies of form and colour are admirable and desirable? In the hope to assist to a more self-helpful Art-knowledge, the following chapters have been written’.34 In the chapter on draperies, in their Suggestions for House Decoration, the Garrett sisters emphasized that the ‘refinement and beauty of a house will, in the main, depend upon the trouble which she [the housewife] is willing to bestow upon small and comparatively insignificant details’.35 It was these details that they went to great length to explain. Advice books often went further than the house furnishings. Mrs Haweis, for example, included chapters on ‘Anti-Smuts’, ‘Drain Ventilation’ and ‘Pumps and Pipes’, demonstrating a need to be conversant with, if not actually involved in, the installation of home technologies.

Household creation

Although men were promoting the conflation of women and the handicrafts,36 women themselves also supported the value of teaching the arts and crafts, in part as tools to help decorate the home. In 1798 Maria Edgeworth wrote in her Essays of Practical Education, that ‘every sedentary occupation must be valuable to those who are to lead sedentary lives, and every art, however trifling in itself, which tends to enliven and embellish domestic life, must be advantageous, not only to the female sex but society in general’.37 Nearly one hundred years later, the comments of Frances Power Cobbe, writing in 1881, expressed her notion of the powerful role of home making for women far more forcefully:

The making of a true home is really our peculiar and inalienable right;– a right, which no man can take from us; for a man can no more make a home than a drone can make a hive…. It is a woman, and only a woman,—and a woman all by herself, if she likes, and without any man to help her,—who can turn a house into a home.38

Although many women undertook various crafts as paid labour, others were able to develop skills in crafts that were associated with ‘work’ but not with employment. This is an important distinction in DIY as well. The fact that particular women enjoyed ‘leisure time’ reflected their position in society, so the undertaking of certain craft skills in a private way was used to control the status quo of class position and exert control over entry to particular levels of society. These accomplishments also gave social approval and self-respect. In many cases they assisted women in the marriage market where there was a need to be regarded as a ‘proper’ complement to the male. Mothers passed these ideas to daughters via a very particular education to create a continuum that lasted well into the twentieth century.

The apparent expression of ‘proper’ female domesticity, selflessness and love was developed through education in home crafts. This creativity was extended to the fashioning of the domestic interior, well beyond the fancy work and accessories made by the women.39 A correspondent in The Spectator noted that his wife, although well educated, skilled and well bred: ‘keeps four French protestants continually employed in making divers [sic] pieces of superfluous furniture, as quilts, toilets, hangings for doors, beds, window curtains, easy chair and tabourets all of which she obstinately persists on thinking…a notable piece of good housewifery because they are made at home and she has some share in the performance’.40

In the eighteenth century, many creative domestic handicrafts were the prerogative of the upper-class women who were not employed and whose role was to organize the running of the family home. This was based on a leisured class who were distinguished from others by their lack of need to ‘work’ in the traditional sense, but who required something to do to fill their leisure hours. These women were able to justify this role by using their time creatively in domestic pursuits or crafts, although interestingly the work was often referred to as art rather than craft. The distinction could often be blurred. Mrs Lybbe Powis collected china, fossils, shells and coins. She also painted on silk and paper, and made embroidery, feather work, plaited straw, pillow lace, paper mosaic, and dried flowers. The well-known Mrs Delaney, famous for collaged flowers, also painted chimney boards, made shellwork garlands, etc. etc..

Whereas craft work generally, and modern DIY particularly, is often a solitary occupation, the work undertaken by certain groups of women was part of a wider range of opportunities for social intercourse, enabling women to exchange ideas as part of a ritual. The example of ‘quilting bees’ reflects this, but there are many others.41 The idea of communal bonding to develop and retain the social codes already mentioned was clearly part of the process. In this way, they had a degree of control over their immediate environment. Rooms, such as boudoirs, drawing rooms and informal workspaces were made to suit the needs of the occupants and their interests. Indeed, the print room may well have been such a space where some women could exploit the crafts of collage and découpage, along with framing and the connoisseurship of art works. It is useful to see that Mrs Delaney, at least, considered her craft as a somewhat private affair on occasion. Writing to her sister, she said:

I am going to make a very comfortable closet: … to have a dresser, and all manner of working tools, to keep all my stores for painting, carving, gilding, &c: for my own room is now so clean and pretty that I cannot suffer it to be strewed with litter, only books and work [needlework], and the closet belonging to it to be given up to prints, drawings, and my collection of fossils, petrifications, and minerals.42

It seems clear that one of the main uses of the products of craftwork in the eighteenth century was to decorate and adorn the person and the home: in other words, to be consumed. Despite the idea of self-expression that might be aspired to, this was often in practice limited. In 1768, Lady Louisa Connolly explained in a letter how she was, ‘busy with a new work, [which] is painting flowers with the stamps I got from Paris on a white satten with which I intend to hang a little closet’.43 Even if women were encouraged to express themselves, it was often limited to superficial matters. In 1795, John Bennett explained:

Whilst men with solid judgement and superior vigour are to combine ideas, to discriminate and examine a subject to the bottom, you are to give it all its brilliancy and all its charm. They provide the furniture, you dispose it with propriety. They build the house; you are to fancy and to ornament the ceiling.44

Despite these seemingly negative aspects, embroidery was one craft in which women could excel. The examples of samplers, stumpwork, beadwork, crewel, quilting and patchwork, to name a few, can all bear witness to the quantity and quality of women's crafts. They also indicate that these were nearly all consumed in the home as either dress or practical decoration. Examples are myriad. Two will suffice to demonstrate the practical nature of much of the work. Celia Fiennes in 1712, recorded that in the Queen's Closet at Hampton Court ‘the hangings, chaires, stooles, and screen the same, all of satten stitch done in worsteads, beast, birds, images, and fruites [were] all wrought very finely by Queen Mary and her maids of honour’.45 In Bath ‘the Matrons of the City, their daughters and their maids [were] flowering the [coarse fustian] with Worsted, during the intervals between the Seasons to give the Beds a gaudy Look’.46 Like modern DIY skills, domestic crafts were frequently required for repairs, renewals and additions. The testimony of Catherine Hutton, who was born in 1756, demonstrates not only the volume of work but also the commitment required over a lifetime. Her account of her needlework labours noted that:

[she has] made furniture for beds, with window curtains, and chair and sofa covers; these included a complete drawing set. I have quilted counterpanes and chest covers in fine white linen, in various patterns of my own invention. I have made patchwork beyond calculation from seven years old to eighty- five [years old]…. I have worked on embroidery on muslin, satin, and canvas and netted upwards of one hundred wallet purses, in combine colours, and in patterns of my own invention.47

By the end of the nineteenth century women were still defined by their ability to create crafts for the home. In 1893, Helen Mather was portrayed as ‘a great needlewoman, not only are the long satin curtains by her own hand, but the pillow, cushions and dainty lampshade’.48

Interestingly, the conflation of self-expression and homemaking grew in the twentieth century, although it was still closely tied to the home. Mary Barkdull commented in Good Housekeeping (US) in September 1910 that ‘curtains, table covers and portières when worked out by … [the housewife] for her own particular rooms, radiate an individuality absolutely impossible to counterfeit with factory productions.49 Emily Post, in 1930, wrote of decorating the house: ‘Its personality should express your personality, just as every gesture you make—or fail to make—expresses your gay animation or your restraint, your old-fashioned conventions, your perplexing mystery, or your emancipated modernism—whichever characteristics are typically yours’.50

The role of homemaker meant that women became more involved not only in the management of the home but also in the practicalities of domestic crafts that were often intended for utilization within the home.

A different issue was the matter of adapting and recycling. Swift, in his Directions to the Waiting Maid, said: ‘Two accidents happened to lessen the comforts and profit of your employment; first the execrable custom got among ladies of trucking their old clothes for china, or turning them to cover easy chairs, or making them into patchwork for screens, stools, cushions and the like’.51

On the contrary, and in rather different circumstances, the American authors, Beecher and Stowe suggested: ‘if you have in the house any broken down arm chair, … draw it out—drive a nail here and there to hold it firm—stuff and pad, and stitch the padding through with a long upholsterer's needle, and cover it with chints like your other furniture. Presto—you create an easy chair’.52

This application of handwork to home furnishings could also refer to practical matters as well as saving money and being careful with budgets. For example, Catherine Beecher wrote in 1869 in her American Woman's Home that prudence with fabric would allow the covering of ottoman frames which ‘your men folk knock up for you, out of rough, unplanned boards, and to cover any broken down armchairs reposing in the oblivion of the garret’.53 This reflects much more of a democratic approach to homemaking than, for example, the comments that recommended shell working as ‘an elegant drawing room occupation, as well as one calculated to call forth the artistic taste and inventive powers of the worker’.54

In 1878, the American author, Hudson Holly, published his work Modern Dwellings in Town and Country. The chapter on Home Art is revealing of early forms of DIY. He discussed how, for people (male and female) who could not afford beautiful surroundings, owing to a lack of income, the ‘desire for artistic surroundings will lead them to master the arts for themselves and produce with their own hands objects that rival in attraction any for which the rich man ignorantly and carelessly exchanges his money’.55 He went on to observe how ‘a gentleman’ made his own furniture as ‘a work of recreation’ and then talked about the work his wife undertook. This ‘woman's work’ involved the decoration of the walls by using painting effects, the production of imitation stained glass using ready-made kits and, inevitably, the running up of curtains.56 The latter were particularly commended by Holly with a note that pointed out that: ‘As metal brackets for the support of the curtain rods were also impractical on account of the expense, a wooden scroll was designed, which she herself cut out with a bracket-saw’.57


This article began by suggesting that there were continuities between modern DIY and the crafts pursued by women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Eighteenth century creative work was about self-expression. Modern DIY appears to reflect aspects of self-expression together with the turning of alienated products into artefacts with personal associations; of leisure pursuits and the desire to be creative, and the need for economy. This prehistory has also provided an opportunity to investigate the reasons why people want to ‘do-it-themselves’ and there is some common ground between past and contemporary attitudes.58

The change in the roles and status of, and attitudes towards, women from the early to the mid-twentieth century has allowed many of the gendered points discussed above to be consigned to the dustbin of history, however, there are many who still distinguish between soft (decorative) DIY and hard (structural) DIY with its gendered stereotypes. In addition, there still exist elements of personal ‘handicraft’ that linger alongside the home improvement or DIY projects undertaken by people. Indeed, in an early DIY text from the 1950s this ideal of crafts being part of DIY was expressly stated: ‘Do-It-Yourself is an expression of the ingenuity, enterprise and self reliance of the individual, and in an age of automation it is good that fundamental arts and crafts are not being lost’.59

These aspects of DIY, ingenuity, enterprise and self-reliance, were originally established back in the eighteenth century by female homemakers using their own craft and design skills. From then onward, women's domestic arts and crafts reflected a process of design democratization through self-expression, which, although gendered, was altruistic in its development, and in its continued use of ‘crafts’ acted as a foil to ‘the age of automation’ through its expression in DIY.


B. Burman makes a similar point regarding home dressmaking. B. Burman, (ed.) The Culture of Sewing, Berg,
, p. 3.
K. Melchionne, ‘Of Bookworms and Busy Bees: Cultural Theory in the Age of Do-it-Yourselfing,’ Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 57:2, Spring,
, p. 249.
See J. Turney, ‘Making and Living with Home Craft in Contemporary Britain’, Journal of Design History,
, 17 (3), p. 267–81 for a contemporary analysis of cross-stitch kits. See also B. Burman, op. cit. for a range of essays dealing with the same issues but applied to home dressmaking, particularly sewing patterns.
Melchionne, op. cit., p. 249.
Ibid, p. 248.
J. Fordyce. Sermons to Young Women,
, 1, pp. 271–72.
B. Disraeli declared that ‘Woman alone can organize a drawing room; man succeeds sometimes in a library.’ B. Disraeli, Coningsby, 1844, Book III, Ch.2, cited in P. Tristram, Living Space in Fact and Fiction, Routledge,
, p. 59.
One of the main issues was that of choice. Learning craft skills might be imposed on girls by elite families, or it might be an insurance against the vicissitudes of life for others.
R. Parker, The Subversive Stitch, Women's Press,
, p. 5.
R. H. Bloch, ‘Untangling the Roots of Modern Sex Roles: A Survey of Four Centuries of Change,’ Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 4:2, Winter,
, pp. 237–52.
R. Parker, op. cit., p. 90.
Cited in A. Forty, Objects of Desire, Thames and Hudson,
, p. 105.
Young Ladies Treasure Book, Ward Lock, 1881–2, p. 161.
Elegant Arts for Ladies, Ward Lock, London,
, p. 16.
Dr Gregory, A Father's Legacy to His Daughters, Dublin,
, p. 30.
E. Messer-Davidow, ‘For Softness She: Gender Ideology and Aesthetics in Eighteenth Century England’, in F. Keener and S. Lorch (eds.), Eighteenth Century Women and the Arts, Greenwood Press, New York,
, p. 47, p. 50.
J. Fowler and J. Cornforth, English Decoration in the Eighteenth Century, Barrie and Jenkins,
, p. 219.
Elegant Arts for Ladies, p. 150. In the later twentieth century, companionship was often between man and women in the DIY work associated with their own home. Many advertisements show ‘husband and wife’ teams working on a project together, e.g. see illustrations in C. Goldstein, Do-It Yourself Home Improvement in 20th-century America, Princeton Architectural Press,
Fowler and Cornforth,
, op. cit., p. 252.
A. Adburgham, Women in Print, Allen and Unwin,
, p. 128–9.
Cited in Parker, op. cit. p. 151.
Cited in P. Nunn, Victorian Women Artists, Women's Press,
, p. 8.
Cited in P. Hodges, Period Pastimes, Weidenfeld and Nicolson,
, p. 81.
T. Logan, ‘Decorating Domestic Space, Middle-class Women and Victorian Interiors’, in V. Dickerson (ed.), Keeping the Victorian House, Garland Press,
, p. 213.
The literature on objects in the home and their meanings is large. See for example, M. Csikzentmihali and E. Rochberg- Halton, The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self, Cambridge University Press, 1981; H. Dittmar, The Social Psychology of Material Possessions: To Have is to Be, Harvester, 1992; J. Friedman, Consumption and Identity, Harwood, 1994; K. Halttunen, ‘From Parlour to Living Room; Domestic Space, Interior Decoration and the Cult of Personality’, in S. J. Brunna, Consuming Visions, Norton, 1989; M. J. Lee, Consumer Culture Reborn: The Cultural Politics of Consumption, Routledge, 1992; R. Madigan, and M. Munro, ‘House beautiful: Style and Consumption in the Home’ Sociology 30: 1: 1996.
R. Edwards, The Shorter Dictionary of English Furniture from the Middle Ages to the Late Georgian Period, Country Life,
, p. 318.
R. Ackermann, The Repository of Arts, January
N. Whittock, The Painters' and Glaziers' Guide,
, p. 98.
Elegant Arts for Ladies,
, p. 19.
D. Miller, Material Culture and Mass Consumption, 1987, p. 190. See also Lisa Cohen, ‘Embellishing a life of labour: An interpretation of the material culture of American working-class homes, 1885–1915’, in T. J. Schlereth, Material Culture Studies, Nashville, 1984, pp. 289–305.
P. Sparke, As long as it is Pink. The sexual politics of taste, Pandora,
, p. 41.
J. Turney, ‘Making and Living with Home Craft in Contemporary Britain’, Journal of Design History, 17 (3),
, p. 276.
G. Lees-Maffei, Introduction to ‘Special Issue: Domestic Design Advice’, Journal of Design History, 16 (1),
, p. 3.
Mrs Orrinsmith, The Drawing Room, Macmillan, London,
, p. 9.
R. and A. Garrett, Suggestions for House Decoration, Macmillan, London,
, p. 84.
See notes 6 and 15 above.
, op. cit., p. 142.
F. Power Cobbe, The Duties of a Woman,
, p. 139. For a male interpretation of the same issue see ‘Woman's Aesthetic Mission’ in J. von Falke, Art in the House, US edition, 1879, Chapter X.
See for example C. Saumarez-Smith, ‘Women and Decoration’ in Eighteenth Century Decoration, Weidenfeld and Nicolson,
, pp. 162–169.
Cited in J. Lubbock, The Tyranny of Taste, Yale, p. 183.
Sewing circles, knotting groups, etc.
D. Hayden, Mrs Delaney, her Life and Flowers, British Museum Press,
, p. 95.
Fowler and Cornforth, op. cit., p. 252.
E. Messer-Davidow, ‘For Softness She: Gender Ideology and Aesthetics in Eighteenth Century England’, in F. Keener and S. Lorch (eds.), Eighteenth Century women and the Arts, Greenwood Press, New York,
, p. 50.
C. Fiennes, The Illustrated Journeys, Webb and Bower,
, p. 241.
J. Wood, A Description of Bath,
, Vol. 2, pp. 3–4.
C. H. Beale (ed.), Reminiscences of a Gentlewoman of the Last Century: Letters of Catherine Hutton, Cornish Bros. Birmingham,
. My thanks to Penny Alfrey for this reference.
, op. cit., p. 7.
M. Barkdull, ‘Curtains, Portières and Cushions’, Good Housekeeping, 51, September 1910, pp. 324–7, Cited in Gordon and McArthur, ‘Popular Culture, Magazines and American Domestic Interiors, 1898–1940’, Journal of Popular Culture, 1959, 22:4, p. 45.
E. Post, The Personality of a House, New York,
, p. 3.
J. Gloag (
), Dictionary of Furniture, Unwin Hyman, rev. ed. p. 496. ‘Trucking’ refers to the bartering or exchanging of goods.
C. Beecher and H. B. Stowe (
) The American Woman's Home, H.P. Brown, p. 89.
Ibid, p. 87.
Elegant Arts for Ladies, Ward Lock,
, p. 16.
H. H. Holly, Modern Dwellings in Town or Country Adapted to American Wants and Climate, Harper & Bros, New York,
, p. 210.
The impact of the domestic sewing machine made this process easier. See for example essays by Putnam, Helvenston and Bubolz, in Burman op. cit. (
Holly, op. cit., p. 213. The advice literature published from c.
is myriad, and many examples have instructions for DIY projects.
For contemporary attitudes see J. Turney, “Here's One I Made Earlier”: Making and Living with Home Crafts in Contemporary Britain', Journal of Design History, 17 (3),
, pp. 367–81.
F. J. Camm, Practical Householder, October 1956: Cited in S. Oram, ‘Do-It-Yourself,’ Dictionary of Interior Design,
, p. 381.