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.
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