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 to Hilary’s agent, explaining what I was doing and hoping she wouldn’t mind. Four hours later I had an email from Hilary herself, expressing interest and encouragement and asking me to keep in touch as my stitching developed.
Over the last couple of years, we corresponded by email. She was unfailingly encouraging, kind and generous, shared personal stories, and seemed genuinely touched that a textile artist was stitching her work.
I was last in contact with her 10 days before she died, when I emailed her about the next part of my Cromwell project: working with yellow satin to create a piece inspired by Cromwell’s own “quylte of yelow Turquye Saten”.
The last thing she wrote to me was “I look forward to hearing about the yellow satin”.
I am devastated that she is no longer here to see it, and that there will be no more of her glorious writing, her sharp wit, and her stretching of the imagination. She was a truly wonderful writer, and I will miss her enormously.
My thoughts are with her husband, friends and family, and all who she touched with her generous spirit. My heart is broken.
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 Bodies and The Mirror and the Light mean that continuing this approach would not satisfy me and, more importantly, would not do justice to Hilary Mantel’s work.
For a while, I was stuck, but once I realised that a thematic approach would serve the project better, I knew I had unlocked something creatively. I have already noted how the role of the river influenced the shape of the Wolf Hall piece, and how it led me to make something long and flowing. This is because the River Thames plays such an important role in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy. And now my stitching is seeking to answer young Thomas’ enquiry in the opening chapter of Wolf Hall:
If I follow the river, is that as good as anything?
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (Across the Narrow Sea, Putney, 1500)
From sixteenth century Putney where he begins, to the Tower of London, where he ends, travelling by water is part of Thomas Cromwell’s routine. There is only one bridge over the Thames – London Bridge – so many of his journeys to and from Westminster, Whitehall, Richmond, Greenwich, the Tower, and Hampton Court are by boat. Travel unfolds at a slower pace than many of us are used to today, and it’s not always straightforward.
Cromwell can’t go about his business without the services of the Thames boatmen. We first meet him as an adult, made late by the revelry of boatmen on the river who are celebrating the eve of one of their patron saints. His later elevation means his travel will be far easier:
It would be convenient, he thinks if I had Master Secretary’s barge, instead of making ad hoc arrangements when we have to cross the river.
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (Devil’s Spit, Autumn and Winter, 1533)
But while he is still making ad hoc arrangements, Cromwell gets valuable information from the gossip of Boatmen, who are a reliable – and salaciously filthy – source. His conversation about Putney’s opinion of the Boleyn family with his old acquaintance Sion Madoc reminds him:
… how much you can learn from boatmen, their argot blasphemous and rapid. At twelve he spoke it fluently, his mother tongue, and now it flows back into his mouth, something natural, something dirty.
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (Arrange your Face, 1531)
There is much inspiration in Mantel’s writing of Cromwell’s river, and I am currently enjoying making a series of Thames Rolls to explore the many references and images that run through the trilogy. It’s going to be a long job but it’s endlessly pleasurable – and I want to ground this part of the project with a sense of place.
I am not yet sure how this will materialise in the finished work, but I have been accompanying my stitching with visits to the Thames. Of course I can’t recreate the experience of Cromwell – either the real person or Mantel’s version – growing up alongside or travelling by the river but I can experience the Thames as it is now.
I can visit Ship Lane in Mortlake and see the perimeter wall of Mortlake Manor, once owned by Cromwell.*
I can take trips on the river between Greenwich and Hampton Court and get an inkling of the time it takes to travel by boat, albeit by motor rather than oarsmen. If I focus hard, I can tune out the running commentary by the boat crew, and imagine the tales of Sion Madoc. I can ignore buildings on the banks and wonder what Cromwell saw. I can look at the river and wonder at the stories it can tell and what it has seen.
* If you want to know more about Mortlake Manor, this post by the Tudor Travel Guide is very informative. It was invaluable when I took a trip to Ship Lane earlier this year.
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 fangs into his wrist, but he survives. The nature of the snake lives on in him, but he also lives on in the snake, after he ‘let it slip away to its future’.
The bite leaves Cromwell with a snake-like duality which enhances his usefulness to the King, but is also a potential threat: Henry tells Cromwell he is ‘as cunning as a bag of serpents’, but warns him against being ‘a viper in my bosom’. Cromwell himself resists his serpentine nature: when Margaret Pole calls him a snake he corrects her: he advises her that he is a dog, not a snake. Later, tiring of the need for endless reinvention, and the constant assessing and reassessing of political and religious factions, enemies and allies, Cromwell notes that ‘he is not a snake who can slip his skin’.
In Cromwell’s world, women who don’t comply with male wishes are likened to snakes. ‘God punish these women, they are serpents!’ rages the King. The mythical queens of England have serpents’ tails; the snake in the Garden of Eden was a woman.
The most destabilising woman is, of course, Anne Boleyn. Cromwell likens her to a snake waiting to strike, and dangerous because you do not know when that strike will come. She is Cardinal Wolsey’s ‘serpentine enemy’. All three novels – Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and The Mirror and the Light – contain references to her as Medusa, the mythical gorgon with hair of writhing snakes. If you look Medusa in the eye, you will turn to stone.
When the painter Hans (Holbein) tells Cromwell he wants to paint Anne, Cromwell points out that Anne may not want to be studied. Hans considers painting her as Medusa: a risky proposition. At this stage in the trilogy (Wolf Hall, ‘Alas, What Shall I Do For Love?’) Anne has power: like Medusa, she has the power of life or death. Even when Anne’s day is done, Cromwell knows he should not look her in the face. After her death, he cannot sleep. The image of her head, her Medusa head, stays in his mind. He wants to keep her head hidden wrapped in cloth, trapped in the steel of the sword with which she was executed.
You know what Medusa does. You cannot look her in the face. You must trap her image in polished steel. Gaze into the mirror of the future: the unspotted glass, specula sine macula.
Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light (Salvage), 2020.
My series of Faces of Anne includes an image of Anne as Medusa. It’s probably the one I like best. As I continue to work on this project, I expect I will sew more serpents. The snake that bit Cromwell in Italy is still waiting to be committed to stitch.
My Cromwell trilogy stitching project seems to have found a recurring shape: I keep rolling my stitchery.
Rolling started as a practical solution to making the first Wolf Hall quilt: a very long (forty six feet) quilted piece. I had to store it somehow and the best solution was to roll it. Then when I had finished it, and was wondering what have I made? I came to the conclusion that rolling felt entirely natural because I felt strongly that the whole piece should not be visible at once.
This is also a play on words. Thomas Cromwell became Master of the Rolls on 8 October 1534, a post he held until 10 July 1536. Hilary Mantel describes it as ‘an ancient judicial office, it commands one of the kingdom’s great secretariats’. (Wolf Hall, ‘The Map of Christendom’); and in this lucrative role Cromwell had access to official records; inked on rolls of parchment.
A couple of weeks ago I went to the National Archives at Kew in order to look at some sixteenth century documents. I ordered up various papers including Cromwell’s ‘remembrances’ or to do lists, some dating from his years with Cardinal Wolsey and some dating from the 1530s when he was high in the King’s favour. These documents were all flat and had been pasted into a book by some 19th century organising hand; but I then had the thrill of opening boxes of rolls.
I was looking for a specific item that I hoped was listed in an inventory roll; I didn’t find it.
I had – optimistically – neglected to take into account two basic facts: firstly, I don’t read Latin, and secondly, Secretary Hand is a challenge to my 21st Century eye. I also hadn’t appreciated how difficult rolls can be to handle. Some are single sheets and can be unrolled very easily, but others are made up of multiple sheets stitched together.
The inventory to which I was particularly drawn defeated me: not only were single sheets stitched together to create one long piece, but in places multiple sheets had been stitched on top of each other. I simply could not work out where the different elements ended or find a way to unroll it without fear of damaging it. So I didn’t gain a full impression of the content – but I did find treasure nonetheless.
I spotted a magnificent “S” – and then another in a different style. Then another… and I started to suspect that the clerk who had the task of writing this document – a very long inventory of property and land – had been bored, and to alleviate that boredom, had started to play a game with his lettering.
And as I looked for more of these elaborate “S” shapes I had a splendid surprise! A 500-year old face popped out to say hello. The bored clerk had left a gift – but I suspect they did not know that they would make someone laugh centuries later. I salute you, unknown clerk. I hope you and your sense of mischief did well in the 1540s.
Content warning: the final image on this page may be unsettling; and this post refers to executions.
Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away.
Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light (London: Fourth Estate, 2020), p.3.
The opening line of Hilary Mantel’s third book in the Cromwell Trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, is violent and shocking, mirroring the violence and shock of the event it describes.
The queen in question is Anne Boleyn. In The Mirror and the Light no-one will emerge unscathed from the violence of her execution.
The historical record tells us that Anne Boleyn was executed on Tower Green on 19 May 1536, after a very swift downfall, arrest, and trial. Advocates for Anne believe she was condemned on false charges of adultery and treason; that her reputation has been unfairly traduced over the centuries; and that her accusers were motivated by political and personal expediency. As Mantel writes in her Author’s note to Bring up the Bodies:
The circumstances surrounding the fall of Anne Boleyn have been controversial for centuries. The evidence is complex and sometimes contradictory; the sources are often dubious, tainted and after the fact.
Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies (London: Fourth Estate, 2012), p.407.
My sewing project is firmly focused on Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell who is no friend of Anne’s: he sees her as someone who is motivated by self interest and assumes everyone else is the same. ‘Good morning, Master Cromwell, what can we sell each other today?’ he imagines her saying. (Wolf Hall, p.430). He believes ‘Anne is not a carnal being, she is a calculating being, with a cold, slick brain at work behind her hungry black eyes’. (Wolf Hall, p.350).
But even though he has disliked her, and been indifferent to her attractions in life, Cromwell is unable to simply walk away from Anne and her fate after her death: the fate that he has helped bring about. Instead he is haunted by her. He dreams of her, he sees her, he feels her presence throughout the final book in the trilogy. The night after her execution:
he dreams the death of Anne Boleyn, in panels. In the first he stands watching as she walks to the scaffold, wearing her clumsy gable hooded. In the second she kneels in a white cap while the Frenchman raises his sword. In the last, her severed head, smothered in linen, bleeds its image into the weave.
The Mirror and the Light, pp.24-25
King Henry also dreams of “Ana Bolena with her collar of blood”. The men who brought about her death are haunted by her.
I thought a lot about how to represent this key chapter in my stitching. A few years ago, when visiting the Tower of London, I found that I could only access the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula – where Anne is buried – as part of an official tour. So I waited near the chapel, attached myself to a tour party already in progress, and entered. Once inside, there was no opportunity to look around; instead, the tour party sat in the pews and listened to the male tour leader talking about the executions of both Anne and Katherine Howard as though they were a subject for humour. I was revolted at his flippancy. Remembering this incident informed my desire to work on representing these moments in a respectful way. I hope I have done so.
The third book of Mantel’s trilogy begins with Anne’s death, but she remains present until the very end. And it is right that she disturbs the consciences of the men who brought about her execution.
Since finishing the first Wolf Hall Quilt, I have been reflecting on the way in which I will continue this project, and over the last few months I have changed my approach. It hasn’t been an easy process; I have thought a lot about what worked in the first stage (the detail) and what didn’t work (the overall shape of the quilt unrolled), and how I restricted myself too much when working on the first piece. After various false starts and a period of being stuck, I now feel very clear about my direction of travel – and that’s partly because of my experience of making a couple of small falcon pieces. Falcons might be the name of the first chapter of the second book in the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies, but the Falcon was also the symbol of Anne Boleyn and her family.
I have always been struck by the way in which Hilary Mantel writes about the symbols relating to the various Queens of England in the Cromwell Trilogy. Mantel writes a lot about the changing of symbols with the changing of Queens – from the pomegranate (Katherine of Aragon) to the falcon (Anne Boleyn) to the phoenix (Jane Seymour), how they have to be painted over, unpicked, or otherwise obliterated.Over the last few months I have been stitching representations of these symbols with a view to eventually putting them together into a Book of Queens. And that has meant stitching falcons.
Although Henry VIII wanted no reminders of Anne Boleyn and her symbols, nearly 500 years after her fall, falcons can still be spotted at Hampton Court, in the ceiling of what’s now known as the Anne Boleyn Gateway. In Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel’s Cromwell pictures himself “perched like a carved falcon over a doorway” – and, like him, these remaining falcons can now watch the comings and goings of those who enter the Great Hall and the chambers beyond.
And at the Tower of London, in the Beauchamp Tower, there is a rough falcon carving that might relate to Anne Boleyn. Historian Eric Ives, in The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004, p.364), wrote that this is Anne’s
“most poignant memorial… Which of her ‘lovers’ made it we do not know, but the image is unmistakable. The tree stump is there – the barren Henry – the Tudor rose bursting into life, the perching bird whose touch wrought the miracle. But there is one change to the badge which Anne had proudly flourished in the face of the world. This falcon is no longer a royal bird. It has no crown, no sceptre; it stands bareheaded, as did Anne in those last moments on Tower Green.”
Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, (Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004) p.364.
The Tower’s own description, to be found on the wall nearby, is less definite and reads “Unknown. The shield is thought to be Anne Bolyen’s falcon carved by one of her supporters”. I’ve seen speculations that it might have been carved by Anne’s brother George, or by the poet Thomas Wyatt, both prisoners at the Tower, and probably the best known of Anne’s supporters, but really we cannot know who made it.
Does Mantel present a scene any of Anne’s alleged lovers (Henry Norris, William Brereton, Francis Weston, Mark Smeaton, brother George, or Thomas Wyatt) carving this uncrowned falcon? No. In Mantel’s telling in Bring Up the Bodies, George Boleyn is imprisoned “in his light circular room in the Martin Tower”. Thomas Wyatt is seen by Richard Cromwell “looking down from a grate in the Bell Tower”; and as Mantel notes in The Mirror and the Light, Wyatt’s own poetry references the Bell Tower. And the exact location of the other four prisoners is not present in the text.
In fact there is just one mention of the Beauchamp Tower in the trilogy, and that is by Cromwell himself. After his arrest, in The Mirror and the Light, he is held in the Queen’s Apartments, before being moved to the Bell Tower. “Can I not go to the Beauchamp Tower?” he asks, to be told that it is already occupied.
While the trilogy does not mention this carving, The Mirror and the Light makes reference to “The Boleyn’s’ white falcon [hanging] like a sorry sparrow on a fence, while the Seymour phoenix is rising”, and that makes me think of this carving. And there’s something else for me to think about. To me, the “tree stump” on which the carved falcon is perched looks a little like a pomegranate; and my stitched adaptation deliberately plays on that. I wanted the now defeated and uncrowned falcon to still be determined to show dominance over the pomegranate, even in its final days.
Looking at these falcons, and their recurrence in the text throughout the trilogy has been invaluable in working out my approach to the next stage of my sewing project. Rather than taking the books individually, and working in order as I did with the Wolf Hall quilt, I am now working thematically across the three books. I’ve been thinking about snakes and eels, the river and the buildings. Last night I even dreamt that I was embroidering the food Cromwell eats. The Cromwell trilogy continues to captivate me and my stitching hands.
I have a very complex relationship with the first Wolf Hall quilt. Ten months after putting the last stitch in place, I am still not sure what I think of it. I think I am reaching the conclusion that it isn’t a discrete piece of work in its own right but it is a jumping off point for other work – and I am happy with that conclusion.
Because of lockdown restrictions in 2020 and 2021, no-one apart from me was in the same space as this piece until it was almost complete. I didn’t show the work in progress to anyone face to face; and I didn’t have the space to see the whole thing. In fact I didn’t actually see the piece as a whole myself until May 2022 when I was finally in a space that could accommodate the whole unrolled length of 46 feet.
Before that, the only way I could see the quilt in its entirety was to have it photographed.
Michael Wicks, the marvellous photographer who produced a great set of pictures of the work, did a great job in taking detail shots. Before we met, we talked about the shape of the project and its length; I drew him out a map of each section on index cards so he could match them up with the photographs I had commissioned. At his studio we tried to lay the piece out flat but it was actually too long, being longer than the width of the building, and so it ended up being folded back on itself. But within 24 hours of dropping it off, I had an image of how the first Wolf Hall quilt looked thanks to Michael’s photographic magic.
The piece didn’t look as I had expected, and I had some difficulty working out what I had made until a friend said it reminded her of a piece of code. The significance was in the detail.
And after a couple of weeks, when I looked at the full image again, I realised she was right. I started to view the quilt in that light – as a piece of code that represented my personal response to Wolf Hall; I have detailed notes, sketchbook diagrams, a colour coding system, and a key that unlocks each reference on the quilt, but without these, can the whole code be read? As Cromwell himself wonders, when reading some of Cardinal Wolsey’s letters to the rulers of Europe, could the encryption be more tricky?
In the same way that one can’t see the contents of a book all at once, I realised that one shouldn’t be able to see the whole quilt all at once. It’s meant to be rolled – in a nod to Cromwell being Master of the Rolls – only revealing part of its code at any one time. The encryption should indeed be tricky.
When I finally unrolled the Wolf Hall quilt a couple of weeks ago, as the guest of a very welcoming quilting group, I was in a space large enough to accommodate it, and eight quilters held it up along its length. It was a very intense experience: even though I made it, I hadn’t appreciated the scale of it before that. I am still not sure what I think of it, but I have now been able to see what the entire piece looks like all at once.
And now, once again, it is rolled up, hiding its codes and its tricky encryption.
When I started working on the Cromwell Trilogy Quilt project, I had the intention of making one single piece to convey my interpretation of the whole of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy. But – best laid plans and all that – I didn’t realise how long the Wolf Hall section alone would turn out. Forty six feet of quilting later, and having faced the difficulties inherent in managing such a long textile piece, I have revised my plans.
I stitched the Wolf Hall quilt in sections – one section for each of the six parts of the book. As each section was stitched, I drew myself a key to show the elements I had included. Once that was ready – at the very end of the making – I had the slightly nightmarish job of joining the sections together to make a single piece.
I joined each section with a placefinder bar, quilting the book title and part number at each join. As the piece got longer and longer and heavier and heavier, I found I was grappling with something that twisted and writhed like the snake that bit Cromwell in Italy. And as it grew, I became increasingly afraid to move in case I twisted it further.
The day that I finished the Wolf Hall quilt was odd. I was very tired, and my hands and wrists hurt from manipulating 46 feet of quilt. It had taken five days to join the sections together, and hours were spent just trimming off excess wadding. On the last day, I sat for hours ploughing on, which was very bad for the hands and the back. But finally, it was done.
I finished all the joins at 3 minutes past 1 on 19 August 2021. I was exhausted but also exhilarated as I rolled it up as one piece. This all-consuming project had reached a significant milestone – the first large piece was complete.
Last week, for the first time in months, I unrolled all 46 feet of the Wolf Hall quilt. I was giving a talk about the project, and the audience of quilters was keen to see the stitching close up – and to experience the scale of this unwieldy textile piece. Given that I rarely get a chance to see the quilt in one go – its length makes it difficult to view – it was very exciting.
I had completely forgotten that I’d left an unfinished grey placefinder bar at the end – after “To Wolf Hall” – thus leaving my options open. In August 2021, I clearly intended to join similar quilted pieces interpreting Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror and the Light to the Wolf Hall piece. But the challenges of 46 feet of quilting made me rethink this idea. Now I am pleased that the ending of the first Wolf Hall quilt is still open to further possibilities. As Hilary Mantel writes at the very end of Bring Up the Bodies:
There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one.
In the summer of 2020, when I started embroidering the chapter titles from Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and The Mirror and the Light, there was a distinct absence of planning. 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.
There were 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 often quilt using chain stitch, so why had I chosen to embroider the words on to just one layer of fabric, thus necessitating a whole separate quilting exercise that ultimately led to a distortion of the lettering? The answer, of course, lay 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 carried on stitching 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 was one of design. Some of the trilogy’s chapter titles are short – Early Mass, Angels, Wreckage, Salvage – and the text, as it was sewn on to the fabric, provided space for prominent quilting designs before or after the words in question. Other chapter titles, however, were almost as long as the fabric strips on which they were stitched – An Occult History of Britain; Alas, What Shall I Do for Love?; The Image of the King – so adding very prominent quilting would have both confused the eye and detracted from the text.
The trick with these longer titles was to come up with a quilting design that faded 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.
And for The Dead Complain of their Burial I was inspired by 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 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 background designs in silver and gold thread – subtle enough not to detract from the chapter title, but occasionally catching the light.
The unplanned nature of this project had ramifications for the overall design and look of the finished piece, and while I was sewing it, I had various thoughts along the lines of “If I were starting again, I wouldn’t start from here”. But I also reflected on the fact that the Cromwell Trilogy stitching project has its own history – it is a long term project started in lockdown. The finished Wolf Hall piece carries that timing with it. Now I am sewing other pieces inspired by Hilary Mantel’s trilogy, I’m working with less constraint. And I haven’t tried to do anything with the restrictive lockdown stitched chapter titles from Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror and the Light. Yet.
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.
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.