The Cromwell Trilogy Quilt: Designing around the Text

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.

A rectangular rush basket full of embroidered wording
A basket of embroidered chapter titles waiting to be quilted

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.

Embroidered fabric with the words Anna Regina and a postcard of Anne Boleyn
A shorter title – Anna Regina – gives space for prominent quilting motifs

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.

Embroidered fabric reading Entirely Beloved Cromwell, with a copy of the play script
Entirely Beloved Cromwell – Lettering takes up the entire length of the fabric

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.

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