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

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.’