Textiles exist in an intimate relationship to the body and personal space, often operating as a language. According to the anthropologists Annette Weiner and Jane Schneider, they have ‘an almost limitless potential for communication,’ and words such as ‘fabric’, ‘woven’, ‘sewn’, ‘knit’, ‘clothe’, ‘drape’, ‘warp’, ‘woof’, ‘spin’ and ‘thread’ have a global currency as metaphors.1 Textiles circulate within and among social groups, as heirlooms and hand-me-downs, or sold as secondhand goods. For centuries, the clothes worn by the rich filtered down through the social hierarchy, eventually to become the rags worn by the poor. Hippolyte Taine wrote of a visit to the Derby races, where he witnessed poor people in ‘gentlemen’s cast off clothing’ and ‘old, formerly stylish dresses’, a display of ‘tatterdemalion attire, which has clad four or five bodies in succession’.2 In the Victorian period, rags were often recycled into paper. What was once a dress or a greatcoat could end up carrying the imprint of a text, possibly a novel representing a dress or a greatcoat.3 The primary focus of this essay is the representation of textiles in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (1849), a Condition-of-England novel which prompted one reviewer to wonder ‘whether broadcloth’ is a ‘proper’ subject for fiction.4 Many Victorian realist novelists offer detailed textual representations of cloth and clothing, describing the textures, finishes and colours and the feel of woven structures against the body; however, such descriptions are often peripheral to the plot.5 Shirley is unusual in foregrounding textiles on many levels, from

the industrial production of woollen cloth to women’s domestic needlework to the bric-à-brac qualities of some textile products, as well as detailing the various styles of clothing worn by the characters and the role of fashion in women’s lives.