A cushion showing Thomas Cromwell with stitched wording in strips

Locking Down with Thomas Cromwell

A cushion showing Thomas Cromwell with stitched wording in strips
A pile of Cromwellian stitchery

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
Plants in pots, a path, and a close up of a large hardback novel.
Reading The Mirror and the Light on the doorstep during the first UK lockdown

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.

A copy of The Mirror and the Light on a quilted piece with a quote from Thomas Cromwell "I was a ruffian in my younger days"
The Mirror and the Light with an earlier Cromwell Quilt

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.

The embroidered words Mirror and Light soaking in water
Mirror and Light: soaking the stitched fabric

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.

Author holding stitched fabric under a sign that reads Austin Friars Passage
Mirror and Light stitchery at Austin Friars, London

I’m now engaged in quilting all these words, but that’s another story. Or, as Mantel puts it so beautifully in Wolf Hall: ‘Behind every history, another history.’

A Year of Sewing Nelson

The Nelson Quilt - June 2015 - one year's work

The Nelson Quilt – June 2015 – one year’s work

I have just looked at the calendar and realised that I started the Nelson Quilt a year ago today. The project still isn’t finished but, in terms of piecing the squares, there isn’t that much more to do now. Soon I’ll have to face the challenge of working out how to quilt him!

The last year with this project has been so exciting. From an idle question (“I wonder what Nelson would look like as a quilt?”) to speaking at the NoRMMA Network‘s Performing Stardom Symposium about Nelson’s place in World War One film propaganda and the link between research and creativity, I have never felt so energised by a sewing project.

Explaining the Nelson Quilt Project at the Performing Stardom Symposium, 29 May 2015. Photo courtesy of Dr Catherine O'Rawe

Showing the Nelson Quilt at the Performing Stardom Symposium, 29 May 2015. Photograph courtesy of Dr Catherine O’Rawe

It feels strange to say that a quilt project can enhance film research but I have definitely found this to be true. Had I not started the quilt, I would not have become so interested in seeking out Nelsonia, visiting Nelson-related locations and finding out about the long legacy of sewn Nelson commemorations. All this additional research has definitely enhanced my understanding of the 1918 silent film about Nelson, directed by Maurice Elvey, and why it was such a significant piece of film propaganda at the time.

Talking about the development of celebratory and commemorative Nelsonia at the Performing Stardom Symposium

Talking about the development of celebratory and commemorative Nelsonia at the Performing Stardom Symposium, 29 May 2015

This quilt started out as an experiment – and proof of this remains in some of the fabric squares. Anyone who looks closely will see that the weave on some dark brown fabric is looser and the squares therefore slightly thicker than the rest of the quilt. Why? Well, when starting out, I wasn’t sure if the project would work or whether it would be something I would try for a couple of weeks and then abandon. When I found I hadn’t bought the right shade of dark brown for the quilt, I used whatever was to hand – in this case a different weave of fabric – because at that stage it didn’t really matter. By the time the project had grown to a reasonable size I thought about replacing those squares but didn’t get round to it. And now I like the evidence of the uncertainty and ambivalence of the early stages of the project. It reminds me that sewing can take one in unanticipated directions and can lead to so much more than one ever expected.

The Nelson Quilt - June 2015 - one year on.

The Nelson Quilt – June 2015 – one year on.