Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Forgotten Seamstress by Liz Trent, A Mystery About A Quilt With An Unusual Provenance.

Liz Trent's novel pivots on an inherited quilt made with a special fabric, the May Silks created expressly for Princess 'May' (Mary) of Teck's wedding gown for her marriage to The Duke of York, George the son of Queen Victoria, in 1893.

"You can see the rose, the thistle, and chain of shamrocks--symbols for the nations of the United Kingdom...These flowers in the center look like daffodils...but more important, can you see those silver threads?" 


Caroline's life is in disorder. She split with her long time boyfriend then lost her lucrative, if dull, job. She has discovered she is pregnant, and her mother has dementia and must be moved into senior care, and the family cottage sold.

Caroline's mother has given her an old quilt. Upon examination by her friend it appears to incorporate fabrics made exclusively for the royal family. Having nothing better to do (start a new business, undergo a miscarriage, and fall for a new guy) Caroline goes on a quest to discover the mystery behind the quilt, who made it, and why her Granny Jean wanted her mother to be sure to hand it down to her.

Plot-driven novels and mysteries are not my usual purview; but there is a time for for them, and being down with a bad case of the stomach flu this past week, The Forgotten Seamstress was perfect.

The novel is written in three time periods; the back story of the quiltmaker Maria Romano, who in 1910 is brought from an orphanage to work as a seamstress in the royal household; transcriptions of interviews with Maria in 1970 when she was in a hospital for the insane; and the contemporary story of Caroline who inherits the quilt. Maria is the more successful and interesting character, the tape transcriptions beautifully rendered.

Through Maria's character we take a tour of  the treatment of the mentally ill over thirty years. When when the quilt goes missing Caroline has to confront the plight of the homeless and life on the street.

As typical of a mystery, the unraveling is complicated and and has a surprise ending.

"As I lifted the quilt out and unfolded it right side out...light from the window illuminated its beautiful, shimmering patterns and dazzling colors."

Now...the quilt.

The mystery quilt is a Medallion style, central square on point, with the center square embroidered with a Lover's Knot, and bordered with lozenges pieced from silks. The next border includes appliqu├ęd figures that become an important clue to the validity of Maria's story. There are hand woven velvets a century old. As the borders move outwards, the fabrics change to lilac and gray cottons, including WWI era uniform fabrics, in a zig zag pattern. The last border of Grandmother's Fans, dating to the 1970s, includes Liberty Cottons.

The quilt was layered with a sheet for the backing and a thin wool blanket as batting, or wadding as it is called in the novel. The quilting stitches followed the seams.

A pattern to replicate the (fictional) quilt has been developed by Judy Baker-Rogers and can be found here.

Liz Trent grew up living next to and working at the family silk mill in Britain.

I thank the publisher and NetGalley for access to the e-book for my review.

The Forgotten Seamstress
Sourcebooks Landmark
ISBN: 9781402282485

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