2019 Conference blogs – The efforts of her needle: unpicking Catherine Hutton’s 1804 counterpane

Elaine Mitchell, University of Birmingham

The efforts of her needle: unpicking Catherine Hutton’s 1804 counterpane

Catherine Hutton’s counterpane projects a landscape of botanical abundance, its floriferous border a device that translates the culture of plants from the landscape of the garden into the landscape of the house. With her needle Hutton produced an aesthetically pleasing item that demonstrates her technical skills and creativity, but its production is also situated within narratives of colonial projects, global trade, new technology and the contribution of plant material to material culture.

Fig 1 Patchwork bed cover

Fig 1Patchwork bed cover made by Catherine Hutton (1804), 3350mm x 3620mm. (Birmingham Museums 20015.86.1).

 Catherine Hutton (1756-1846)

Hutton was an author and letter writer, the daughter of William Hutton, a prosperous Birmingham book-seller and paper merchant, and his wife Sarah Cock. Catherine was a woman rooted in the overlapping business, intellectual and cultural networks that framed the Industrial Revolution. The needlework that was one of Hutton’s many employments is threaded throughout her life; she was rarely without a piece of work in her hands. She stitched ‘furniture for beds, with window-curtains: and chair and sofa covers’; she ‘quilted counterpanes and chest-covers in fine white linen in various patterns of [her] own invention’ and ‘made patchwork beyond calculation, from seven years old to eighty-five’.[1]

Fig 2 Catherine Hutton

Fig 2Catherine Hutton at the age of forty three. Engraved by J.W. Hook from an original picture in the possession of Thomas Hutton Esq., Reproduced with the permission of the Library of Birmingham, Life of William Hutton, MS3597/7/15.

Catherine Hutton’s counterpane

Hutton’s counterpane demonstrates how the motifs and materiality of nature were adopted for the world of goods. Decorated with images of plants, but also fabricated from the products of plant material, it embodies in its very materiality the contribution of plants to material culture. Whilst the counterpane appears immediately familiar as ‘English’ with its overblown roses, lilac and tulips, ingredients of what is now projected as a typically ‘English’ garden of informal style and dense plantings, closer interrogation overturns this interpretation. Firstly, the design illustrates the adoption of plants and style from Asia and beyond. Secondly, through two of the plants that constitute its materiality, cotton and acacia, the counterpane connects the English Midlands to the Atlantic world, Africa and the discourse of goods created from plants that were the crops of slave labour economies.

Describing a border around the counterpane, framing a central patchwork motif, Hutton’s lush arrangement of appliqued flowers, leaves and fruits entwine a branch in an imagined botanical construct. The composition displays the influence of tree of life patterns seen on Indian printed and painted cottons where a botanically impossible combination merges into one sinuous growth (http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O78277/bed-curtain-unknown/). These floral patterns, which came into Britain in quantity via the East India Company, created a new language of design, albeit one modified to suit British taste.[2]

A cornucopia of plants

As the range of flowering plants available to the British gardener became more abundant during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the available palette of floral motifs expanded. Beverley Lemire has described the efflorescence of English homes as floral designs dressed the house and Zara Anishanslin has explored the designs of Anna Maria Garthwaite as maps of the botanical landscape of Britain’s empire.[3] Through the plants that comprise its visual appeal and the plants that constitute its materiality, Hutton’s counterpane is tied both to the domestic world that she inhabited in Birmingham and to the African, Asian and Atlantic worlds beyond.

Hutton’s abundant creation mingled, amongst other imported plants: tulip, Italian jasmine, lilac and laburnum with rose, anemone and Virginia spiderwort. From the tulip which entered Europe through Turkey, to the rose which originated primarily from across Asia; from the Virginia spiderwort brought from Britain’s American colony to the laburnum from southern and central Europe, the appliqued plants delivered a cornucopia of botanical specimens from around the globe into the house.

Fig 3 Plant introductions

Fig. 3: A world of plant introductions. Patchwork bed cover made by Catherine Hutton (1804), 3350mm x 3620mm (detail). (Birmingham Museums 20015.86.1). Image courtesy of Elaine Mitchell.

Hutton’s design reflects the new nature that had been introduced into Britain from elsewhere in the world: a novel nature that became absorbed into and changed the very nature of the British landscape.[4] Many of the ingredients of this new nature flowed into Britain from colonisation, notably from America after the establishment in 1607 of the settlement in Virginia. Virginia spiderwort for example, named Tradescantia virginiana, celebrates a plant brought back to England in the seventeenth century by John Tradescant the Younger.[5]

Fig 4 Tradescantia

Fig. 4: Tradescantia virginiana depicted on patchwork bed cover made by Catherine Hutton (1804), 3350mm x 3620mm (detail). (Birmingham Museums 20015.86.1). Image courtesy of Elaine Mitchell.

Plant matter

The textile that composes the materiality of Catherine Hutton’s counterpane has dominated narratives of nineteenth-century industrialisation in Britain. The history of cotton is a complex one of colonialism, slave economies, consumerism and technological development in Britain and the rest of Europe. Hutton’s choice of cloths for her counterpane are considered to be printed European-woven cottons, rather than Indian calico, cut from furnishing fabrics with large-scale printed designs.[6] The result of knowledge learnt from Asia, by1804 there was an established textile printing industry in Britain.

By 1738 the cultivation of cotton had migrated from the Mediterranean via the West Indies to the Americas where it was produced by African slave labour and by 1804 almost all of the raw cotton used in Britain came from New World plantations.[7] The plant product used to fix the colours of the printed flowers was similarly embedded in slavery. Senegal gum (or gum arabica) was a product of the acacia tree, an essential ingredient in paper making but also in printing linen and cotton where it gave consistency to the colours. The forests of Senegambia in West Africa, then controlled by France, were the main source of gum arabica, a commodity produced by slave labour in a system of trading where slaves and gum were exchanged for European goods.[8]


Catherine Hutton’s counterpane translated to the house the ingredients of a floral landscape that came to be adopted as ‘English’, but it masks an almost entirely globally constructed object. This case study illustrates how the products of botanical landscapes far from Britain were re-purposed for the interior landscape of the house and demonstrates how plants, both as artistic representations and as matter, were consumed through material goods. Exploring Hutton’s counterpane reveals the significance of plant material as a commodity that connected Birmingham to the Atlantic, Asian and African worlds; it situates Birmingham within wider narratives of global trade, colonial projects, slavery and the incorporation of new aesthetics from the East. Other areas of exploration suggest themselves too: gender, making, collage, mathematical knowledge, shopping and consumerism for example; Hutton’s counterpane is planted with possibilities.


[1] Catherine Hutton to Markham John Thorpe, July 13, 1844 reproduced in ‘A Female Collector’, The Gentleman’s Magazine (May 1846), p. 476. Rosemary Mitchell, “Hutton, Catherine (1756–1846), novelist and letter-writer.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. October 03, 2013. Oxford University Press. https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-14299, [accessed 7 Jan 2017]; Susan Whyman, The Useful Knowledge of William Hutton. Culture and Industry in Eighteenth-Century Birmingham (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2018).

[2] Beverley Lemire, ‘Draping the body and dressing the home. The material culture of textiles and clothes in the Atlantic world, c. 1500-1800’ in Karen Harvey (ed.), History and Material Culture: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources (2nd. Edn., Abingdon, Routledge, 2017).

[3] Beverley Lemire, ‘Domesticating the Exotic: Floral Culture and the East India Calico Trade with England, c. 1600-1800, Textile, 1/1 (2003); Zara Anishanslin, Portrait of a Woman in Silk. Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World (New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2017).

[4] Alan Bewell, Natures in Translation: Romanticism and Colonial Natural History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016).

[5] Maggie Campbell-Culver, The Origin of Plants (London, Headline, 2001).

[6] Bridget Long, personal communication (14 February, 2017).

[7] Giorgio Riello, Cotton. The Fabric that Made the Modern World (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[8] Maxine Berg, ‘In Pursuit of Luxury: Global History and British Consumer Goods in the Eighteenth Century’, Past & Present, 182 (February, 2004); John Yeats, The Natural History of the Raw Materials of Commerce (London, George Philip & Son, 1887).

Elaine Mitchell is a Postgraduate Research student at the University of Birmingham writing about the culture of horticulture in Birmingham over the long eighteenth century. She is Editorial Assistant for the journal Midland History https://www.tandfonline.com/toc/ymdh20/current.

Publications: Malcolm Dick & Elaine Mitchell (eds.), Gardens and Green Spaces in the West Midlands since 1700 (Hatfield, University of Hertfordshire Press, 2018), https://www.herts.ac.uk/uhpress/books-content/gardens-and-green-spaces-in-the-west-midlands-since-1700; ‘Duddeston’s ‘shady walks and arbours: the provincial pleasure garden in the eighteenth century’ in Dick & Mitchell, Gardens and Green Spaces; ‘Plants, Print and Commerce in the Eighteenth Century’ in Caroline Archer-Parré & Malcolm Dick (eds.), Text, Type and Commerce in the Eighteenth Century (Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, forthcoming 2020); Picture Editor for Carl Chinn & Malcolm Dick (eds.), Birmingham. The Workshop of the World (Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2016), https://www.liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/books/isbn/9781781382462/.


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