Little did I realise when I visited the Victoria and Albert’s quilt show in 2010 and was inspired to write a novel in which a quilt was the central character, that by doing so I would stumble inadvertently and happily into a great international community of quilters! It is already five years since the publication of my second novel, The Forgotten Seamstress, and there have been three further books since, but it still remains one of my most popular.
My acceptance into this world was due in large part to the great good fortune of being introduced to the internationally-acknowledged quilter, teacher and author Lynne Edwards MBE. We met several times and, over bottles of wine and lots of laughter, ‘devised’ the quilt that Maria made, taking into account the influences and sources of inspiration that she would have had at different times of her life, and the sort of fabrics she might have had at her disposal. Lynne also very generously devised the pattern which is available for free on my website and has inspired quilters all around the world to make ‘Maria’s Quilt’. It is intriguing to see how differently people have interpreted the pattern.
Mary Woodcocks interpretation of ‘Maria Quilt’
The mystery at the heart of the novel is a piece of royal silk. My family has been weaving silk for three hundred years, and I was brought up in the house next to the mill which is still weaving today. Although I didn’t go into the silk business myself, I am immensely proud of this long heritage and it has left me left me with a great love of all things to do with fabrics.
The piece of silk featured in the book really exists. I found it at the Warner Textile Archive in Braintree, Essex when researching my family’s silk weaving history. It is one of the famous ‘May Silks’, exceptionally beautiful damasks and brocades, some with interwoven gold and silver threads, hand woven for the trousseau of Princess May for her wedding to the heir to the British throne in 1893. The silks themselves were entrancing but it was the story behind them which most intrigued me.
Of course this led me to writing about the royal family, but finding out what my character Maria’s life as a servant in Buckingham Palace was tricky. I visited the building of course, but you are only allowed into the royal reception rooms and are never shown ‘downstairs’. I read a number of accounts and histories of the Palace and of the royal family at that time, but couldn’t discover whether they ever employed seamstresses. I have since met a woman whose grandmother was actually a seamstress there, so my instincts were right!
Researching the asylum in which Maria ended up was more straightforward. As a teenager, I was an inpatient in a ward set aside for minor clinical operations at an enormous Victorian mental hospital close to my home town. The sights and sounds of the place left a deep impression on me. It was like a country mansion set in its own grounds but surrounded by high fences – outwardly grand and yet with such an oppressive and ominous atmosphere.
Even now, I hear from readers of The Forgotten Seamstress all over the world. It has been translated into a number of languages (including Bulgarian) and also published in the USA and Canada. Americans are great quilters and also have a great respect for our royal family, so I suspect it was those twin interests that sent the book into the top thirty of the New York Times best seller list (and the USA Today top one hundred).What a thrill!
I don’t always write about fabrics but they do appear quite often even if they are not the central theme. My latest In Love and War (2018) follows three women desperately seeking their menfolk lost in the battles of Flanders. There is more about all my books at wwww.liztrenow.com, you can keep updated by liking my Facebook page or following me on twitter @liztrenow.
The Forgotten Seamstress is published in the UK by Harper Collins. You can order it from all good bookshops or from Amazon and if, after reading it, you are inspired to make Maria’s Quilt from Lynne’s pattern, do send me a photo!
Join the Book Club Group here on UKQU, and watch out for Arlene’s column in British Patchwork and Quilting Magazine each month announcing the chosen book. The Forgotten Seamstress has been chosen as the book to read and discuss throughout June.