When in 2020 I started a large textile project inspired by Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy, it was initially a way to keep myself occupied during lockdown.
As the project progressed, and grew ever more ambitious, I started to worry about using someone else’s work as inspiration, and felt I should seek permission. I nervously wrote to Hilary’s agent, explaining what I was doing and hoping she wouldn’t mind. Four hours later I had an email from Hilary herself, expressing interest and encouragement and asking me to keep in touch as my stitching developed.
Over the last couple of years, we corresponded by email. She was unfailingly encouraging, kind and generous, shared personal stories, and seemed genuinely touched that a textile artist was stitching her work.
I was last in contact with her 10 days before she died, when I emailed her about the next part of my Cromwell project: working with yellow satin to create a piece inspired by Cromwell’s own “quylte of yelow Turquye Saten”.
The last thing she wrote to me was “I look forward to hearing about the yellow satin”.
I am devastated that she is no longer here to see it, and that there will be no more of her glorious writing, her sharp wit, and her stretching of the imagination. She was a truly wonderful writer, and I will miss her enormously.
My thoughts are with her husband, friends and family, and all who she touched with her generous spirit. My heart is broken.
I’m continuing my stitched explorations of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy, and doing some work based on symbols relating to the various Queens of England as they are presented in these novels. Falcons might be the name of the first chapter of the second book, Bring Up the Bodies, but the Falcon was also the symbol of Anne Boleyn and her family.
I am currently working a layered section of my Mirror and the Light piece (or series of pieces) that represents these symbols: Mantel writes a lot about the changing of symbols with the changing of Queens – from pomegranate (Katherine of Aragon) to falcon (Anne Boleyn) to phoenix (Jane Seymour), and my intention with the stitched piece is that, as you peel back the layers, you see the changing political and marital allegiances. The pomegranate and the phoenix are embroidered so they lie flat, but I made a stylised representation of Anne’s falcon first, and I quilted that in order to give it some additional weight and texture. The falcon was the most difficult to remove, and Anne’s presence haunts the novels, so a denser piece for her queenship seems most appropriate.
I was able to visit both Hampton Court and the Tower of London in recent weeks, and on both visits I was very conscious of being able to see symbols and emblems which I have been reading about in the Cromwell Trilogy. I included pomegranates and a falcon in my first Wolf Hall piece last year; and the emblems recur throughout the trilogy. When I gave my 2021 conference paper about the role of stitching in these novels, I talked about the stitching and unpicking of emblems and badges, and how Mantel represents these activities in her writing.
Re-reading The Mirror and the Light, I see these themes even more strongly. This novel starts with the execution of Anne Boleyn, but her presence is still felt in dreams, and also in the falcon symbol that she has left behind. After her fall, Henry VIII wanted no reminders of her; but her falcon emblem, her initials, and their initials entwined (HAHA) were everywhere – on fabric, on wood, on stone. Occasionally one of her emblems survived attempts at removal; this stone falcon is on display at Hampton Court, there’s one in the gatehouse roof, and I believe their is a HAHA in the wood in the Great Hall. In the words of the Duke of Suffolk, in the novel, “You’ve got a HAHA.” Fabric is easy to unpick, paint can be overpainted, but wood and stone are a bit more difficult to deal with.
At the Tower of London, in the Beauchamp Tower, there is a rough falcon carving that might relate to Anne Boleyn. Historian Eric Ives, in The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, wrote that this is Anne’s
“most poignant memorial… Which of her ‘lovers’ made it we do not know, but the image is unmistakable. The tree stump is there – the barren Henry – the Tudor rose bursting into life, the perching bird whose touch wrought the miracle. But there is one change to the badge which Anne had proudly flourished in the face of the world. This falcon is no longer a royal bird. It has no crown, no sceptre; it stands bareheaded, as did Anne in those last moments on Tower Green.”
Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004, p.364)
The Tower’s own description, to be found on the wall nearby, is less definite and reads “Unknown. The shield is thought to be Anne Bolyen’s falcon carved by one of her supporters”. I’ve seen speculations that it might have been carved by Anne’s brother George, or by the poet Thomas Wyatt, both prisoners at the Tower, and probably the best known of Anne’s supporters, but really we cannot know who made it.
To stop myself becoming too distracted by the origins of the Tower Falcon, I have to remind myself that I am working on pieces inspired by Hilary Mantel’s version of events, and those novels are my one source text.
While many scenes in the trilogy take place at the Tower of London, there is just one mention of the Beauchamp Tower in the text, and that is by Cromwell himself. After his arrest, in The Mirror and the Light, he is held in the Queen’s Apartments, before being moved to the Bell Tower. “Can I not go to the Beauchamp Tower?” he asks, to be told that it is already occupied.
Does Mantel present a scene any of Anne’s alleged lovers (Henry Norris, William Brereton, Francis Weston, Mark Smeaton, brother George, or Thomas Wyatt) carving this uncrowned falcon? No. In Mantel’s telling in Bring Up the Bodies, George Boleyn is imprisoned “in his light circular room in the Martin Tower”. Thomas Wyatt is seen by Richard Cromwell “looking down from a grate in the Bell Tower”; and as Mantel notes in The Mirror and the Light, Wyatt’s own poetry references the Bell Tower. And the exact location of the other four prisoners is not present in the text.
So, I ask myself, have I overdone things by stitching an impression of this carving? It doesn’t appear in the trilogy. Have I been distracted by a material artefact, which should not form part of my textile interpretation of a specific text? Yes, and no.
This falcon carving does not appear in the novels, but there is a reference to “The Boleyns’ white falcon [hanging] like a sorry sparrow on a fence, while the Seymour phoenix is rising”, and that makes me think of this carving. And there’s something else for me to think about. To me, the “tree stump” on which the carved falcon is perched looks a little like a pomegranate; and my stitched adaptation deliberately plays on that. I wanted the now defeated and uncrowned falcon to still be determined to show dominance over the pomegranate, even in its final days. There is more than one way of reading these symbols.
In the closing days of 2021 and the opening day of 2022 I stitched along to Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, a perfect audiobook listen for midwinter, as the story starts on Midwinter’s Eve and finishes on Twelfth Night. I started my quilting on Midwinter’s Day, and finished it on New Year’s Day.
The Dark is Rising (1973) is the second in a series of five books written for children, which I must have first read when I was nine or ten. At that age, I preferred the first book in Cooper’s series, Over Sea, Under Stone, which is a more straightforward adventure story. As an adult, I much prefer the subtleties of language and atmosphere of The Dark is Rising, which is the best known of the series today, and can be read as a stand-alone story. A winter re-read is now a regular part of my year, and this time round, I decided to use that re-read as an opportunity for some immersive stitching.
I didn’t plan the piece, or have any idea of what it should look like. It was an extension of my regular Random Stitch practice which I started in September 2020, and which I have found a very liberating way of working. But I haven’t used this sort of stitching for anything book-inspired before, and I didn’t know whether this method would work.
However, it turned out to be a very positive way of quilting. I used the unabridged audiobook (an excellent reading by Alex Jennings) and simply let the needle go where it wanted. My hands turned my listening into stitches that hinted at shards of ice and snow, the melting water of the thaw, a rose ring, green fabric from a velvet coat, primroses, flames, rooks, a joined circle, and the six signs at the centre of the story. I deliberately did not stitch anything figurative, as I wanted an abstract piece that could stand alone in its own right, as well as giving a fleeting impression of Cooper’s prose.
When I first thought of stitching along to The Dark is Rising, white or grey fabric seemed most appropriate, but to my surprise I found myself drawn to a piece of very crumpled dark blue, which had been lying around for a while, waiting to become something. I was well into the stitching process when I heard a reference to “the wrinkled sea” in the text, and I wondered whether my subconscious had prompted me to choose this particularly wrinkled piece of blue fabric to work on. Did a dimly remembered scene from a previous reading play a part – or was it simply a lazy decision made because the blue fabric was immediately to hand?
I finished stitching on New Year’s Day at the same time as I finished the audiobook. I I knew I didn’t need to add anything else – my stitching and listening had been perfectly entwined. The only thing that didn’t work out according to plan was the weather. The finished piece should really have been photographed in the snow, but it has been unseasonably warm this New Year.
Last month, I decided to do something new. Well, new for me, at any rate. I was very busy preparing a paper about stitching in the Cromwell Trilogy for a conference about the work of Hilary Mantel which took place in mid-October, and I didn’t have much space in my head for thoughts of complicated sewing. What I needed was the equivalent of a musician practising scales – keeping my muscle memory in play.
I had read about the practice of doing a bit of unplanned sewing every day, and, earlier this year, I went to a fascinating online talk by textile artist Claire Wellesley-Smith about her longstanding stitch journal. I didn’t want to embark on anything large scale, especially given my ongoing Cromwell quilt work, but I was intrigued by what I had heard about the stitch journal and I wondered whether a few minutes of daily unplanned sewing would benefit my work.
I had an odd piece of white fabric lying around – about 13 by 10 inches – and an offcut of wadding of about the same size. And I picked up a bit of orange thread. I’ve been quilting with chain stitch a lot recently, so I started with that, then added in some standard quilting stitch. The idea was not to worry too much about stitch length but just to see what happened.
As ever, the first stitches on blank fabric looked fairly underwhelming, and I found the process slightly odd. I am usually quite controlled with my sewing and know exactly what I am going to stitch – especially when I am working with lettering – but here I was faced with a blank space and an attempt to let my needle go where it chose. I defaulted to curves very quickly, because I always prefer to stitch curved lines rather than straight.
I got into the habit of using whatever thread was to hand, provided that it fitted in to a fairly restricted colour range – brown, orange, red, cream, black, and grey. Rather than allowing cut off pieces of cotton from other stitching to sit in my pincushion and get tangled (a bad habit of mine), I started to add them on to the random stitch piece.
I usually did about ten minutes random stitching at a time. I didn’t do it every day; I live with a migraine condition which means I tend not to commit myself to a daily practice, as I can’t maintain it. But I did add stitches on most days, finding it beneficial to have something I could pick up in odd minutes.
As I very gradually added more stitches, the fabric changed texture – something that never fails to surprise me – and I started to see random patterns becoming something else. Was this a rockpool? Or some sort of shale rock formation? Sometimes an unstructured stitch takes a needle somewhere entirely unexpected. It was exciting to see my ten minute stitching sessions actually turn into something – a fairly coherent piece of sewing that started from nothing.
I found the practice so beneficial that, at the end of September, I cut out some russet coloured fabric and added it to the first piece so I could carry on in October.
So far, October’s random sewing looks less interesting – largely because I have been so preoccupied with other work. And I find that interesting, albeit not surprising: a ten-minute random stitch practice is impacted by what else is going on elsewhere. This month, there are no swirling curves, just some rather unadventurous wavy lines. I’ll have to watch how it develops in the last week of October.
For most of 2018 and 2019, my quilting inspiration was notable by its absence, and I was starting to wonder if it would ever come back. But with the help of a long-abandoned project – which required some creative remedies – I’m definitely now back in the quilting spirit.
The pleasure of completing a very long standing quilting project.
Quilting took a back seat while I worked on writing up my PhD thesis about the early career of Maurice Elvey, which I submitted in February 2018. I passed my Viva that August, was awarded my Doctorate in September, and attended my graduation ceremony in November.
I just passed my Viva!
Maurice Elvey at my PhD graduation
I anticipated feeling a bit dislocated once my PhD was completed, but I didn’t realise that this dislocation would extend to my sewing practice. As one of my quilting friends commented, “I thought that now you’d finished, your quilting would be unstoppable!” Rather than being unstoppable, it almost stopped altogether. I spent months picking up projects and putting them down again, unable to find satisfaction in any sewing at all. Nothing seemed right and I kept bemoaning my lack of inspiration.
In January 2019 I decided to make a Double Wedding Ring just to see if I could – precision piecing isn’t really my thing but I wanted to challenge myself technically – and I completed the patchwork, but couldn’t decide how to quilt it.
I then fiddled about with some quilted drawings but they didn’t capture my imagination. I was starting to think I’d never really quilt properly again, when I came across an unfinished quilt I started back in 2006.
I was fairly new to quilting then, and at that time, I was trying – unsuccessfully – to get to grips with using a sewing machine, so I pieced the patchwork by machine, and then attempted to handquilt it. I decided to use a big stitch pattern – and some of those early stitches really were huge!
In 2019, I couldn’t remember why I had abandoned this quilt until I washed it, had a good look at it, and found that there were significant problems with the construction: uneven seams, some seams that didn’t even meet, a misguided use of seersucker around the edges, and some terrible fraying in places. As a new quilter, I hadn’t known how to address any of these problems so I’d stuck the whole thing in a bag and moved on. But all these years later, I knew what to do. I unpicked some of the uneven seams, patched over the largest gaps, and cut off the frayed fabric. The seersucker – a real mistake – was anchoring some of the quilting stitches so I couldn’t remove that entirely, but I did cut it down and made a mental note never to use seersucker in a quilt again.
I added finer quilting to contrast with the original big stitch design
I agonised about the original big stitch quilting, some of which was really badly executed, and unpicked the worst of it. But in the end I left most of it in place – it was done to the best of my ability when it was first sewn, and it felt important to acknowledge this. And it’s a useful reminder of my learning and developing my quilting technique – and knowing when to let go: I could probably have spent another year unpicking and resewing, but there are other things to stitch.
I added new borders and stitched the long process of making into the quilt itself, so the bottom border reads I started this quilt in 2006 and completed it at the end of 2019. And suddenly, this abandoned quilt was bound and complete.
From being crumpled in a bag and hidden in a cupboard – a reminder of frustration and failures of technique – over the last couple of weeks, this newly finished quilt has been out for a walk by the Thames, been blowing in a friend’s garden on a windy day, and is now a favourite way of keeping warm during the colder weather.
During my ongoing Quilt Archaeology, I unearthed the one piece with which I am entirely happy: Cross Little Men Singing a Cross Little Song. I handquilted them in 2016.
Cross Little Men Singing a Cross Little Song sing out on two pieces of cloth just 13 inches by 8. I must have been looking at the Isle of Lewis Chessmen when I thought of them (I have a replica of that chess set. I keep meaning to learn how to play, but I’ve been saying that for well over a decade). My needle had its own ideas, however, and my Cross Little Men decided to be rather jolly. They didn’t turn out biting their shields as I had originally envisaged them, instead they sprang off the needle wanting to sing about the sea. They make me laugh every time I see them.
I sometimes think about making a whole fleet of Cross Little Men, but I suspect that if I did, they wouldn’t turn out in the same spirit: they might be rather forced and become very bad-tempered indeed. And the original three might feel slighted and stop singing. And that would be a shame because this is the one piece in my collection that I love without reservation.
I have been digging around under the stairs and in the back of the wardrobe, in bags and in boxes, and finding old quilt projects – or, as I like to term it, indulging in Quilt Archaeology. I’m in between two phases of an enormous project and I’m having a bit of a break before picking it up again.
I finished work on the Wolf Hall section of the Cromwell Trilogy Quilt on 19 August 2021 and have been busy writing up the project and matters relating to it for a conference about Hilary Mantel’s work which takes place in October. I started doing a bit of work on the Bring Up the Bodies section but I realised I was forcing the process, and that’s never a good idea.
So rather than going back to my notebooks, index cards, and Hilary Mantel’s glorious prose, I started to sort some of my fabric stash into better order, and in the process unearthed some old and unfinished projects.
During my quilt archaeology session, I came across various pieces. There’s a star quilt, which I started in 2005. I abandoned it because the central star was off: the original fabric had a particular pattern and I hadn’t cut it with any thought to pattern matching. It looked terribly clumsy. In October 2019, I replaced the central star with a different fabric. This piece is now half way quilted, but I keep thinking about whether I should replace some of the outer pieces before going any further. The pattern matching is a bit off in a couple of places. So, yes, I probably will have a further fiddle with the piecing before I finish quilting it. Maybe next year…..
I also found a hexagon quilt which I paper pieced in 2013. I don’t do much paper piecing these days, as it is so hard on the hands. I had started quilting, but I can’t think what led me to want to place a circle on every single hexagon? I like the effect, but it’s going to take years to finish. Can I be less strict about the quilting design I wonder? Maybe finish it with something less dense? Or would that spoil the overall effect?
The most problematic piece I found is a very floral quilt that I made in 2007-8. I was figuring out how to handquilt properly, rather than by stabbing the stitches through the different layers. My taste has changed so I wouldn’t make anything so floral now, but I remember liking it fifteen years ago. Do I keep this piece to remind me of learning to handquilt? Do I finish it and highlight those painstaking learning stitches? Or do I decide it’s not worth the effort? When I examined this quilt more closely I found that there were multiple problems associated with the layering: I didn’t get the wadding properly flat and it has twisted slightly. It’s not fixable to my satisfaction without unpicking everything and relayering it. Can I be bothered? I haven’t decided yet.
Then there’s a bee folklore quilt top that I’ve just washed. I remember doing the research for this piece, but I have no memory of putting it together. My memory insists that that’s a project waiting to be started, so how did it get so far ahead without me noticing? There’s an aggressively bright strippy floral quilt, which is very near completion – why didn’t I finish that in 2009 when I made it? I’ve an unfinished purple and cream diamond quilt top that’s been lurking since 2013: I know my hands don’t appreciate the paper piecing involved so I can’t make it any bigger, but perhaps it can be appliquéd onto something else as a centrepiece? Under the desk, there’s a double wedding ring quilt top I painstakingly handpieced in 2018-19, just to to see whether I could. All that effort really needs quilting….
If you work entirely by hand – as I now do – quilts take a long time to make, and there’s a good chance of becoming disenchanted half way through stitching. Or of deciding that something isn’t working. Or of finding a structural problem that you don’t know how to fix. Yet. But one of the joys of making quilts is that they don’t go off: you can put them aside for days, months, or even years, and pick them up again. You can fix what defeated you before, you can unpick, rework, and restitch, or possibly even decide that the thing that was bothering you before is actually all right.
The scrappy quilt above is a case in point. I started it way back in 2006. I felt then that I should learn how to stitch by machine, even though I hated doing it, and I was a very inexperienced quiltmaker. I got half way through handquilting it, and then found that, structurally, there were real problems, due to my inability to machine stitch a straight seam. So I stuck the whole thing in a bag and refused to think about it. I picked it up again in 2019 and realised it was fixable with some unpicking, some restitching and some patching. I finished it in late 2019. These days I quite like having it around. It’s comfortable. And it reminds me that one day’s abandoned project can become tomorrow’s finished quilt, with just a touch of rethinking.
The last time I wrote about the Cromwell Trilogy Quilt Project, I mentioned the absence of planning when I started embroidering the chapter titles from Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and The Mirror and the Light. Yes, I made sure there was some regularity about the lettering I stitched, but I didn’t have any sort of scheme for how the pieces would fit together or how they would be quilted. It is unsurprising therefore that once I got into working out the quilting design, this presented challenges.
There are two main issues. Firstly, once I started putting the pieces together, I wondered why I hadn’t simply quilted the chapter titles from the start. I can quilt using chain stitch, so why had I simply embroidered them, thus necessitating a whole separate quilting exercise that might lead to distortion of the lettering? The answer of course lies in the fact that I had never really intended to stitch all this text at all – I just intended to sew Mirror and Light but I carried on for five months until the chapter titles from the whole trilogy were done, and my left thumb ached from gripping the thread.
The second issue is one of design. Some of the chapter titles are short – Early Mass, Angels, Wreckage, Salvage – and the text, as it is sewn on to the fabric, provides space for prominent quilting designs before or after the words in question. Other chapter titles, however, are almost as long as the fabric strips that make up the different elements of the piece – An Occult History of Britain, Alas, What Shall I Do for Love?, The Image of the King – so adding very prominent quilting would both confuse the eye and detract from the text.
The trick with these longer titles is to come up with a quilting design that fades into the background while still conveying meaning. For An Occult History of Britain, for example, I spent hours studying pictures of snakes so I could design a serpent to sit behind the lettering, in homage to the snake that slithers through the trilogy – I picked up a snake in Italy – after biting Cromwell. I enjoy the appearances that snake makes on the page, so I wanted to add him to the quilt.
And for The Dead Complain of their Burial I was stuck until I found a description of Cromwell and George Cavendish watching Cardinal Wolsey’s possessions being ransacked at York Place:
“He and George Cavendish stood by as the chests were opened and the cardinal’s vestments taken out. The copes were sewn in gold and silver thread, with patterns of golden stars, with birds, fishes, harts, lions, angels, flowers and Catherine wheels.”
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (London Fourth Estate, 2009), p.282.
That gave me my start. I designed fishes, stars, and a Catherine wheel; and for the bird designs I consulted a book of sixteenth and seventeenth century sewing patterns: Richard Shorleyker’s A Schole House for the Needle. That book tells its readers to ‘compose its patterns into beautifull formes, as will be able to give content, both to the workers, and wearers of them’. So I quilted these designs in the background in silver and gold thread – subtle enough not to detract from the chapter title while glistening in the light.
When I started quilting this project I had an uneasy moment when I thought “If I were starting again, I wouldn’t start from here”. But by that stage it was too late to restitch all those chapter titles. And I also reflected on the fact that the Cromwell Trilogy Quilt has its own history – it’s a project started in lockdown. Being able to read Hilary Mantel’s work during lockdown, and finding a way of engaging with it creatively, and stretching my quilting design skills is a privilege.
In my stitching practice, the element I enjoy most is handquilting. I’m not a particularly accurate piecer, and I don’t enjoy constructing patchwork blocks to specific dimensions. But I love handquilting and I take great pleasure in sewing tiny stitches to make tightly controlled patterns, or lettering, or pictures.
When I started stitching the chapter titles in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy, it was just a way of passing some lockdown time and processing what I had read. There was no plan and no coherent thought as to what this stitching might become. There was no standard sizing, and no design concept. But as the pile of stitched chapter titles grew and grew, I knew I would ultimately want do something more purposeful with them.
When I decided to put all the embroidered chapter titles together into one handquilted piece, I knew that the quilting had to be approached in a considered way – partly because I knew it would be the most pleasurable part of the stitching, but mainly because I wanted the experience of quilting this piece to be as immersive as possible. That meant establishing a fairly tight practice for working on each section of the quilt. I decided from the start of the quilting process that I would work incrementally, and sew each section in a strict order – I would not dot back and forwards throughout the Trilogy, and I wouldn’t piece the whole thing together in one go. I wanted to be very intentional about what I was doing, which meant reading and listening to the chapter I was stitching as I quilted it.
I worked out a process that would support this way of working: although I know the three books really well, I wanted to reacquaint myself with the text before starting each chapter. So when a section is pressed and basted ready for quilting, the first step is to re-read the relevant chapter. I then make notes on index cards as prompts for the stitching. There are three sets of index cards: anything that might inspire me to draw a quilting motif, or phrases that might spark an image are written on white cards; I make a note of the colours that are prominent in the chapters on pink cards; and finally references to anyone who actually engages in an act of stitching go onto green cards.
I then start to quilt. At that stage I won’t necessarily know what will go into the relevant section overall, but, as long as I have a starting point, I am happy to pick up a needle. I then listen to the audiobook of the relevant chapter as I work, and the act of listening brings out other ideas, almost without me realising it. The reader’s emphasis on a particular phrase, or my hearing – rather than reading – Mantel’s words might highlight something that I want to sew into to the quilt, so I usually listen to the chapter on repeat. Sometimes I listen to it in the German translation – I know the original English so well that I can follow it even though my German isn’t really up to it. I don’t move forward with reading and listening to the book until each individual section is quilted.
The decision to work in this way has an impact on the way the quilt is developing. I don’t have an overall plan worked out in my head for the entire piece, and each section evolves as I read and listen. And sometimes it is a difficult process; some chapters contain almost unbearable levels of loss and pain and I had particular problems when I came to An Occult History of Britain and Make or Mar when Cromwell’s grief overwhelms him. I actually had to leave part of that section unsewn as it was too distressing to continue, thereby breaking my own rules. And I do foresee problems with this process once I approach the end of the Trilogy, but that’s a worry for another day.
This contrasts strongly with my stitching of the chapter titles in 2020. That was very unfocused, with no sense of a larger project to come. This has presented some significant design challenges, but that’s another story.
I have spent much of the last twelve months reading and re-reading Hilary Mantel’s incredible Cromwell trilogy, Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and The Mirror and the Light. Along with the text on the page, magnificent new readings of all three books by Ben Miles, who played Thomas Cromwell on stage for the Royal Shakespeare Company, have kept me enthralled, entertained, and energised.
Of course, over the past year, like many other people, I have been mostly staying at home due to the Covid-19 pandemic, so immersing myself in these books has been an important coping mechanism. This isn’t to say that they have necessarily been an comfortable read. Running throughout the trilogy is the sweating sickness, and there are many instances of loss, pain and death. And in the 1520s, in the trilogy, Cromwell and his family have themselves to undergo a period of isolation, just as so many people have done in 2020 and into 2021;
Mercy comes in and says, a fever, it could be any fever, we don’t have to admit to the sweat … If we all stayed at home, London would come to a standstill. ‘No’, he says. ‘We must do it. My lord cardinal made these rules and it would not be proper for me to scant them.’
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall: Part Two, Chapter Two, An Occult History of Britain, 1521-1529
There is overwhelming grief contained in all three books, but there is humour too, and warmth, loyalty, and love. There are amazing foods and furnishings, politics and governance, gardens and London streets, the River Thames and the Narrow Sea. And there is fabric. So much fabric. Linen and velvet, satin and brocade, embroidered, quilted, draped, rolled – these books make you want to touch and feel cloth.
One of the things that has helped me through this current extended period of isolation and disruption has been stitching. I recognise how privileged I am to have been able to spend the time this way, and how fortunate I am to know how to sew. As well as keeping me occupied, it has added to my deep pleasure in the Cromwell trilogy. As someone who plies a needle almost every day, I find the act of stitching in the trilogy to be endlessly fascinating – who sews, what they sew, what that sewing represents, what tools are used. I have been obsessed with these references since first reading Wolf Hall in 2009. I remember the first time I read a description of Anne Boleyn looking ‘small and tense as if someone has knitted her and drawn the stitches too tight’, and the pleasure I took from these words. Mantel’s writing about cloth and what can be done with it is, perhaps, particularly pleasurable for those who work with textiles. Back in 2014, I wrote about some of the textile references here and I made a small Cromwell-related quilted piece.
In June 2020 I finished reading The Mirror and the Light for the first time. The visceral shock of the ending stunned me, then haunted my dreams. I re-read Mantel’s Beyond Black, and then restarted Wolf Hall. In August, there was a heatwave and I couldn’t bear to sit under the heavy quilt I was then working on. I wanted something small, unlayered, and cooler to stitch. I started – in a rather unfocused way – to chain stitch the words ‘Mirror’ and ‘Light’, on to strips of white fabric, just to see how it felt.
In a brief period, when lockdown was eased, I made my one and only trip into the City of London of 2020 and took the sewing to the Austin Friars, where Cromwell once owned a house. And then, as a way of processing what I had read I just kept sewing, and it soon became apparent that I had embarked upon an enormous, immersive sewing project. I spent the rest of 2020 stitching the chapter titles from The Mirror and the Light. Then Bring Up the Bodies. Then Wolf Hall. I finished chainstitching all the titles on 29 December 2020.
I’m now engaged in quilting all these words, but that’s another story. Or, as Mantel puts it so beautifully in Wolf Hall: ‘Beneath every history, another history.’