Sewing with author Tracy Chevalier

Ahead of her new book A Single Thread, we spoke to Author Tracy Chevalier who explains why she’s championing an initiative to get inmates to share their stories through quilting and embroidery. The author who is probably most famous The Girl With The Pearl Earring releases her new book later this year, focussing on a woman who embroiders church kneelers for a living while planning a better life for herself.

Hi Tracy, you’re best known as an author, but what inspired you to give quilting a go?

I was writing a novel called The Last Runaway in which the heroine – a 19th century Quaker who emigrates from Dorset to America – is a quilter. I chose quilting because I was looking for something both British and American women did in their spare time back then. In order to write about the process, I felt I needed to do it myself. I took a class, then joined a group. Five years later, I’m still in that group and still quilting!

We love the idea behind your book The Sleep Quilt, how did this come about?

In 2014 I curated a quilt show called Things We Do in Bed, set in five bedrooms in Danson House, a stately home in Bexleyheath, south-east London. At the time I was in touch with the charity Fine Cell Work (FCW), which teaches prisoners to embroider cushions and make quilts, and I commissioned them to make a quilt for the show. The Sleep Quilt was the result. Prisoners from several different prisons where FCW works made squares decorated with thoughts and images of their feelings about sleep. Primarily in blue and white, it is colourful and varied and funny and sad. The Sleep Quilt was so popular with visitors that FCW began showing it at various events. It was on display at the International Festival of Quilts at Birmingham NEC in 2015, and won second prize in the Group Quilt category. It was great that over 30,000 visitors got to see it, but we began to think about sharing The Sleep Quilt more widely, and the idea of the book was born.

How did you decide to choose the theme of ‘sleep’?

The five rooms of the quilt show had five different themes connected to beds: Birth, Sleep, Sex, Illness and Death. Of those five themes, we thought Sleep would be more appropriate and perhaps less troubling for prisoners to think about. However, it turns out that sleep is a big issue in prison. It’s hot, stuffy, noisy and you are sharing space with people you may not want to. Also, you can busy yourself during the day in prison, but at night when you’re lying in bed trying to sleep it’s easy for all the things that have gone wrong in your life to get you to prison to come crashing into your thoughts. All of that got reflected in the quilt, along with some humorous touches and some pretty spectacular embroidery and quilting.

Why do you think prisoners want to get involved with Fine Cell Work?

Some prisoners will say bluntly that it’s for the money. (Fine Cell Workers get paid for their work and can put that money in a savings account for when they get out, or send to their families, or buy essentials like soap.) Often that’s what starts them, but soon they do it for other reasons. The work gives them something concrete to do and fill the many hours, breaking the monotony of prison life. It is colourful in an environment that is often grey and industrial. They meet people from outside the prison system. It is a refuge of calm in what can be a tense place. I think the whole scheme is genius!

Why do you think it’s important to teach prisoners creative skills like quilting?

As quilters know, when you sew, it calms you down. Conversely it is impossible to sew properly when you’re angry. Also, making something beautiful and useful also strengthens self-esteem, which many prisoners are sorely lacking in. In a word, creating things is therapeutic.

 

What project/projects are you working on at the minute?

I am just finishing a baby quilt for my cousin’s son. I love baby quilts because they take so much less time than big one! Next project is a quilt for a friend’s caravan. I believe she wants some lime green in it! I think it’s going to be something from Janice Gunner’s Liberating Log Cabin book.

Do you have any exciting plans for the next year you’d like to share?

My new novel is set at Winchester Cathedral in the 1930s. There are embroidered cushions still in use in the choir stalls that were made by a group of volunteers in 1931-36. My heroine ends up making cushions and dealing with the petty politics of volunteer groups, as well as becoming involved with a bell ringer. I am going to learn how to do canvas embroidery – but not to the extent that I learned quilting for The Last Runaway. I don’t want to cut into my quilting time!

FIND OUT MORE

Fine Cell Work is a charity and social enterprise that runs rehabilitation projects in 30 British prisons by training prisoners in paid, skilled, creative needlework, undertaken in the long hours spent in their cells, to foster hope, discipline and self-belief. Prisoners earn approximately 37% of the sale price and there is around 100 hours work in each of the designs. Find out more about the charity and shop from a wide range of quilts, cushions, bags, gifts and kits at www.finecellwork.co.uk

Read more about Tracy’s latest books, quilts and events at www.tchevalier.com 

Look out for her new book which is now available for preorder here!

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