In 2020, I started stitching the chapter titles in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy with no coherent thought about what this stitching might become. It was just a way of passing some lockdown time and processing what I had read (I have written more about the origins of the project here). But as the pile of stitched chapter titles grew and grew, I knew I would ultimately want do something more purposeful with them. And given that I love handquilting, and I take great pleasure in sewing tiny stitches to make tightly controlled patterns, or lettering, or pictures, it made sense to make use of this technique.
I took some time deciding on a format for a quilted piece. There was no plan, no overall design in my head. I had embarked upon the stitched chapter titles with a vague idea that I might make a traditionally shaped quilt based on The Mirror and the Light. But I was never quite satisfied with that concept. I kept thinking there was something inappropriate about a bed-shaped item based on these novels: how could one sleep under the story of an execution?
The plan unfolded itself at an event for the Women’s Prize for Fiction that I watched online in September 2020. Mantel was interviewed, and said:
All of the stories are borne along on the River Thames and the river has its deeps and its mysteries, and although the book is pegged very firmly to the historical record, there are still subterranean depths within the hearts of the people whom the record concerns and we swim around below the surface.Women’s Prize Live: Hilary Mantel and Angie Cruz on their writing inspirations, plus readings from Coral Pena and Ben Miles, The Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2020
I liked the idea of creating something long, snaking out like the river, in a single strip. I had visions of a deconstructed set of the novels, pages rearranged chronologically in a lengthy horizontal timeline. And so I started to think about working a quilt in the shape of a long strip. At that point, I didn’t know how big it would be. I had a vision of joining together multiple strips so that all three books would be represented in one long piece, starting and ending with So Now Get Up. Given that the Wolf Hall quilt alone ended up being 46 feet long, I have since revised this idea.
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 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.
I worked out a process to support this way of working: although I know the three books very well, I wanted to reacquaint myself with the text before starting quilting each chapter title. So when a section was pressed and basted ready for quilting, the first step was to re-read the relevant chapter. I then made notes on index cards as prompts for the stitching. I drew up three sets of index cards: anything that might inspire me to draw a quilting motif, or phrases that might spark an image went onto white cards; I made 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 went onto green cards.
I then started the quilting process. I listened to the audiobook of the relevant chapter as I worked, and the act of listening brought out other ideas, almost without me realising it. Hearing Mantel’s words sometimes highlighted an element to be sewn into to the quilt, so I usually listened to the chapter on repeat. Sometimes I listened 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 didn’t move forward with reading and listening to the book until each individual section was quilted.
The decision to work in this way had an impact on the way the quilt developed. I didn’t have an overall plan worked out for the entire piece, with each section evolving as I read and listened. And sometimes it was a difficult process; some chapters contained 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 foresee problems with this process once I approach the end of the Trilogy in The Mirror and the Light, 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. That presented some significant design challenges which I can see in the finished piece.
It’s interesting to reflect on how the first Wolf Hall quilt was made. A year on, looking back on the tight practice and the self imposed rules I put in place, I wonder how much these were a subconscious reflection of the restrictions of the pandemic. When I look at the finished piece, I can see how its rigid shape was influenced by the time in which it was made. As the project evolves into 2022, its form is rather more fluid – although the immersive reading and listening remains.