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I am sitting with Tracy Chevalier in the conservatory of her north London home, staring at a mound of colourful materials she has dumped on a table. The author of Girl with a Pearl Earring – which sold four million copies – learnt the art of quilting as research for her novel The Last Runaway, which tells the story of an English girl who emigrates to America in the 1850s.
Chevalier is about to attempt to pass on at least some of her quilting skills to me. I have to come clean and inform her that the last piece of craftwork I attempted was sewing a button back on my shirt. In fact, the only thing we have in common is that both of us suffer from poor eyesight, which makes step one, threading the needle, even more painful.
Giggling at our own incompetence, we unearth a needle-threading tool from the cloth pile and then I have to tie a knot at the end of my cotton. “OK, Jeremy – let’s have some fun!” says Chevalier. I can’t help thinking that if I had sold as many books as she had – other bestsellers include Remarkable Creatures and Burning Bright – I could probably find a more interesting way of enjoying myself.
Quilting plays a pivotal role in The Last Runaway, which follows an English girl who flees the heartache of a failed romance to settle in Ohio. “Quilting is a leisure activity these days but 150 years ago it was a necessity. Houses were freezing cold and people needed blankets to stay warm.
“My main character moves into a Quaker community but holds on to quilting as a continuity of her previous life in England. American women also sewed and she starts to characterise them by how they cut cloth and design their patterns. You are not meant to read the book and take up quilting – it’s just a common theme through the story.”
We are going to make a grandmother’s garden rosette – a circle of seven hexagonal shapes that are the most commonly used design in quilting. When stitched together, the rosette is about five inches in diameter and should, if correctly worked, interlock perfectly with other rosettes in a quilt pattern. I use a hexagonal template to cut the seven pieces of cloth, noting that choosing the correct colours now is vital to the overall look of a finished bedspread.
Part of the fun of quilting is collecting the material and Chevalier has rummaged through junk shops in the US and UK. Digging into the pile on the table, she fishes out a pair of hippy-style trousers. “These belonged to a friend. There are pieces of material so beautiful here that I don’t want to cut them at all.”
US-born Chevalier, 51, has always subscribed to the writing equivalent of method acting. To research Remarkable Creatures – her novel about Victorian fossil hunter Mary Anning – she scoured the beaches of the Jurassic coast near Lyme Regis. She took painting lessons to research “Girl with a Pearl Earring”, the 17th-century masterpiece by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer.
“I’m not as obsessed about the method style as Daniel Day-Lewis or Al Pacino but it really helps to immerse yourself in something,” she explains. “I took sewing lessons and joined a quilting group to see how a needle feels in my hand. I felt the pain of pricking myself with a pin. My first spread took a year to complete, although I could have finished it quicker if I had used a sewing machine and not watched TV in the evenings.”
We then use another template to cut smaller, hexagonal pieces out of a sheet of paper. The next task is to use large basting, or straight, stitches to tack the cut material to the paper, thus creating seven perfectly stitched, hexagonal swatches of cloth. When seven of these are complete, we join them together in a rosette shape, using a smaller and much neater whip stitch. The unsightly basting stitches are then removed with scissors.
After pricking my finger a second time, Chev alier encourages me to use a thimble. The metal device feels clumsy on my finger so I carry on without. After two hours, there’s blood on the cloth and my eyes are aching but we do have a perfectly shaped rosette. My tutor seems impressed: “Oh my God – look at that stitching! Your needlework is incredibly detailed. It kills me that you have done so well at your first attempt.”
After I assure her that the FT does not have a quilting circle, Chevalier shows me how the rosette will fit into her new quilt pattern. “You always start from the middle of the quilt design and work outwards. A lot of people draw out a design but I quilt like I write – I have a vague idea of what I want to do but the detail isn’t planned.”
Once she has enough rosettes for a quilt, she will stitch them all together and lay the finished patchwork out on a rectangular piece of backing material. A sheet of cotton or wool wadding is sandwiched between the two, giving the blanket extra weight and warmth. All three pieces are stitched together to create the finished quilt.
“Some sewers leave the hexagonal paper templates in to add an extra layer of thickness. People restoring quilts have found all manner of written material inside, including love letters.
I used that idea in The Last Runaway,” she says.
Quilting has become as important to Chevalier as fossil hunting and she plans to continue. “It’s relaxing. When I am working with fellow quilters we talk about our lives and what is going on in the world. Sometimes we sit there in silence and stitch too – it goes with our moods.”
I’m happy that my own piece of handiwork will find immortality in Chevalier’s latest quilt pattern. It could be another year before the cover is completed and by then she will be researching a new novel. “The next one’s about trees,” she says. “Immigrants once took saplings all over the world and they mirror their own story in a way. You might find me swinging through the trees to research that subject too.”
‘The Last Runaway’ (HarperCollins, £7.99). Tracy Chevalier curates ‘Things We Do in Bed’, an exhibition about quilting, at Danson House, Bexleyheath, Kent, April 1 to October 31; bexleyheritagetrust.org.uk