Quilt Archaeology

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.

An enormous project: The Cromwell Trilogy Quilt as at 6 July 2021

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.

19 August 2021: The Wolf Hall section of the Cromwell Trilogy Quilt is finally finished, and I am both exhilarated and exhausted

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.

The difficulty of replacing a central star: not recommended

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.

Scrappy quilt – finished in 2019: 13 years after I started sewing it.

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.

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: ‘Beneath every history, another history.’