Embroidered fabric with the words Anna Regina and a postcard of Anne Boleyn

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.

Index cards with notes from Wolf Hall

The Cromwell Trilogy Quilt: Immersing myself in words and stitch

Index cards with notes from Wolf Hall
Quilt planning on index cards

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.

A hand holding a pile of embroidered fabric
The embroidered chapter titles waiting to be quilted

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.

An ipad with the audio book of Wolf Hall and a section of quilting
Quilting and listening to Wolf Hall Part One, Chapter One: Across the Narrow Sea

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.

Index Cards with notes relating to An Occult History of Britain
Index Cards: An Occult History of Britain

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.

Green thread, a notebook, containing a sketch for a quilting design
Planning out a shattered emerald for Wolf Hall – Part One, Chapter Three: At Austin Friars