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

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.’

The Fabric of Wolf Hall

I grew up reading a lot of historical fiction. From the age of about ten, I devoured novels by Jean Plaidy, Margaret Irwin and Margaret Campbell Barnes, and particularly enjoyed their books about Henry VIII. I had an especial fondness for Jean Plaidy’s Murder Most Royal and Brief Gaudy Hour by Margaret Campbell Barnes. Both books were about the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn and both featured a villain – Thomas Cromwell – who tortured musicians and brought down queens. My early ventures into reading Tudor fiction meant that I always thought of Cromwell as a Very Bad Man.

NPG 1727; Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex after Hans Holbein the Younger. © National Portrait Gallery, London. *

NPG 1727; Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex after Hans Holbein the Younger. © National Portrait Gallery, London. *

But in April 2009, a new book was published and this book changed my viewpoint completely. This book featured Thomas Cromwell as its central character: Hilary Mantel’s magnificent Wolf Hall. As Mantel’s hero (or should that be anti-hero?), Cromwell is witty, charismatic and slippery, loyal to his friends and ruthless to those who cross him. A devoted family man. A patron saint for administrators, archivists and minute writers. And a man who knows about cloth.

The Thomas Cromwell Quilt

The Thomas Cromwell Quilt

Re-reading Wolf Hall recently, I was struck by the number of references to textiles, and how beautifully they are described by Mantel. Velvets, brocades, silks, wool, sables, satins all burst from the page.

As a youth fleeing England, young Thomas Cromwell meets “three elderly Lowlanders”, traders in cloth, who show him their “woollen samples and discuss among themselves the weight and the weave.” Cromwell learns about cloth and concludes that “with wool so long in the fleece these days, and good broadcloth hard to weave, he ought to be getting into kerseys, lighter cloth like that, exporting through Antwerp to Italy.” He understands what clothes of the right fabric can do; on meeting the poor but beautiful Helen, “mentally, he takes her out of cheap shrunken wool and re-dresses her in some figured velvet he saw yesterday, six shillings the yard.”

As Cardinal Wolsey’s man, Cromwell admires a tapestry of “the woollen monarchs,” Solomon and Sheba: a tapestry that depicts a woman he has known and that weaves its way throughout the book. When Wolsey falls, Cromwell watches the cardinal’s finery being packed away: “bolts of fine holland, velvets and grosgrain, sarcenet and taffeta, scarlet by the yard.” Cromwell knows its value. “In public the cardinal wears red, just red, but in various weights, various weaves, various degrees of pigment and dye, but all of them the best of their kind, the best reds to be got for money. There have been days when, swaggering out, he would say, ‘Right, Master Cromwell, price me by the yard!'” And in a spirit of thrift that will be appreciated by patchworkers everywhere, this fabric has a second life after Wolsey’s death: “The cardinal’s scarlet clothes now lie folded and empty. They cannot be wasted. They will be cut up and become other garments. Who knows where they will get to over the years? Your eye will be taken by a crimson cushion or a patch of red on a banner or ensign. You will see a glimpse of them in a man’s inner sleeve or in the flash of a whore’s petticoat.”

Sewing the binding.

Sewing the binding.

Cromwell’s wife, Liz, does “a bit of silk-work” and complains about “the price of thread.” Their sheets are of fine linen and they sleep “under a quilt of yellow turkey satin.” In one of my favourite scenes, Liz embroiders shirts for their son Gregory “with a black-work design; it’s the same one the queen uses, for she makes the king’s shirts herself. ‘If I were Katherine I’d leave the needle in them,’ he says.” In this world, sewing is a weapon. Does Anne Boleyn pull the stitches out of her sister’s embroidery? How can his niece’s “awkward little backstitch” be used to protect Cromwell’s letters? Will a book of needlework patterns wrapped in kingfisher blue silk be taken from Jane Seymour? Who will unpick embroidered pomegranates, representing the badge of Katherine of Aragon?

As readers may have guessed, I know the text of Wolf Hall very well. It’s my favourite book, and as well as reading from the page, I find the excellent unabridged audiobook, read by Simon Slater, the perfect sewing accompaniment. And in 2014, my enjoyment was enhanced even further by the magical stage adaptations of Wolf Hall and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, developed by the Royal Shakespeare Company and Playful Productions.

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies at the Aldwych Theatre

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies at the Aldwych Theatre

I was lucky enough to see the plays in both Stratford-upon-Avon and London, and was so swept away by them that I simply had to sew something. Mantel’s Notes on Characters, written for the plays, say of Cromwell: “You don’t say much about your past, but you tell Thomas Cranmer, ‘I was a ruffian in my youth.’ Whatever this statement reveals or conceals, you have a lifelong sympathy with young men who have veered off-course.” I love that sentiment  – and it formed the basis for a little quilt tribute to Thomas Cromwell, Hilary Mantel, Mike Poulton, and the cast, musicians, production team and backstage crew of the plays that I enjoyed so much.

Memorial plaque at Tower Green

Memorial plaque at Tower Green

* The image of Thomas Cromwell from the National Portrait Gallery, London is used under the terms of the Creative Commons license.