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Textiles are central to the Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy, as Thomas Cromwell prices his associates by the yard, dresses queens, and understands the centrality of the wool trade, of dyeing, and of the weights and weaves of cloth to the English economy. The practice of stitchery is ever-present: from the child Jo’s awkward little backstitch, used to sew up Cardinal Wolsey’s letters in Wolf Hall, to the treasonous embroidery of Margaret Pole in The Mirror and the Light. Cromwell believes that Anne Boleyn will unpick her sister’s stitches and scissor up Jane Seymour’s sewing. A needle has been left in his wife Liz’s unfinished cushion cover, creating snags in the weave that Cromwell can feel long after her death; Katherine Howard needs a bodkin to tackle the fallen hem of Anna of Cleves’ stiff wedding gown; pomegranates, initials, and badges are stitched and unpicked as fortunes rise and fall.

Taking Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy as a starting point for a stitched piece of work presents numerous choices for the textile practitioner. Does one attempt to recreate blackwork designs (and leave the needle in)? Are the difficulties of sewing with gold thread worth overcoming to conjure up the impression of magnificence? Should the usual striving for neatness and uniformity be abandoned in favour of an awkward little backstitch? And is hand quilting through wool worth the strain on the hands involved in working a material congruent with the novels’ period?

For the last few years, I have been exploring Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy though a large-scale sewing project inspired by Mantel’s work. This site will explore how descriptions of needlework in the Cromwell trilogy are influencing the development of this sewing and how the immersive experience of reading, re-reading, and listening to the trilogy impacts on the practice of stitchery.

‘It’s useful to have the evidence stitched together.’

Looking critically at the Cromwell Trilogy Quilt project as I work through it – and reviewing the pieces I have made and the processes I went through to make them – is an essential part of my textile practice. Some of my thoughts about work in progress, research, and the pleasure of reading and stitching Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy can be found here.

Dame Hilary Mantel, 1952-2022

When in 2020 I started a large textile project inspired by Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy, it was initially a way to keep myself occupied during lockdown. As the project progressed, and grew ever more ambitious, I started to worry about using someone else’s work as inspiration, and felt I should seek permission. I nervously wrote […]

Hampton Court Palace - a brick building with numerous tall chimneys is shown on the opposite bank of the river on a sunny day. The Palace is reflected in the ripples of the water.

Follow the River

Since finishing the first Wolf Hall quilt, and reframing the shape of the Cromwell Trilogy Quilt project, I have been working thematically, rather than novel by novel. Closely following the structure of Wolf Hall worked well for the first piece, but the temporal shifts and reassessments of past events that run through Bring Up the […]

A stitched woman's head with snakes for hair.

Serpents

The more I immerse myself in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy, the more strands I see running through the three books. One of my favourite strands is serpentine: snakes slither through the narrative. The snake Cromwell picks up in Italy for a bet is his companion in dreams and during fevers. It bit him, sank its […]

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