Things we do in bed: What happened when novelist Tracy Chevalier took up quilting

Inspired by the heroine of her new book, the ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ novelist Tracy Chevalier has curated an exhibition of quilts

In Tracy Chevalier’s latest novel, the heroine is a quilter. The Last Runaway follows Honour Bright as she emigrates from Dorset to Ohio in the mid 19th century.

“I like my characters to do something and quilting was very popular at the time,” says Chevalier. “There were very different aesthetics. In America it was appliqué in red and green. Bold colours like the brashness of the American women Honour encountered. She comes from an older society, more sophisticated, more jaded. English patchwork was subtle. The American quilts are the way Americans are: quick, practical, striking and easy to use. I thought this idea could work well.”

For research, Chevalier learnt to quilt, and became so enamoured she’s now curating a show of historical and contemporary quilts at Danson House in Bexleyheath, Kent. Things We Do in Bed explores five themes: birth, sleep, sex, illness and death.

A spectacular quilt by Grayson Perry hangs in the opening “birth” room. From a distance, jewelled colours glow within an intricate design. Up close, the shapes reveal themselves as translucent foetuses, red veined, curled around a blood-red placenta. This quilt, called Right to Life, is Perry’s response to America’s abortion debate.

The “sleep” room feels sombre, with an iron bed covered with a quilt made by prisoners, mostly men. Inmates responded with varied designs: one square shows an eye open during sleep, which reflects the continuous tension inside prison; another has chain stitches over a small cell. A melting clock reveals how time distorts during prison life, and there’s humour with embroidered words: “Switch that bloody torch off.”

Sex occupies the smallest room. A tiny red room contains a quilt by Sara Impey in the shape of an oversized chain, which hangs from the ceiling. It could be a soft reference to sado-masochism, although the space is so small it appears almost prudish.

“I spent a lot of time worrying about this room because a sex room could be tasteful or raunchy. I found that quilts and nudes didn’t really work. I thought it was going to be easy and then it turned out to be the hardest room.”

The “illness” room contains a quilt by Sue Watters, made while her husband lay dying of Alzheimer’s. Becky Knight sewed stones and painkillers into her quilt to reflect depression. A contemporary quilt by Karina Thompson uses digital technology to show the movement of a single heartbeat. A tragic quilt of white hexagons between transparent sheets tells the story of Christine Chester, whose son drove over Beachy Head. He survived and the patchwork is made of sympathy letters from friends and family.

Grayson Perry’s ‘Right to Life’ quilt (Jon Drori) Grayson Perry’s ‘Right to Life’ quilt (Jon Drori) Illness leads to death, marked with a stunning 19th-century widow’s quilt titled Darts of Death: an elaborately quilted white fabric lined with black darts in the shape of palms, like those thrown before Jesus on Palm Sunday. An unsettling piece in the “death” room called Memoriam, by Michele Walker, shows shiny grey  fabric rimmed with twists of steel wool, plaited and frizzed. It symbolises Walker’s mother, who obsessively twisted and pulled at her hair during her struggle with dementia.

There’s a melancholy feel to the show. “I think that might be me,” says Chevalier. “I don’t write funny books. I suppose a lot of joyful things go on in bed. Sex is joyful. But I think this show represents me. I find it very hard to write about sex in books. The Last Runaway has only two paragraphs of it, because I find it embarrassing. Most sex scenes in films and books are embarrassing, because they’re very rarely done well. The sex room is oblique which reflects me.

“The sleep room is not cosy or comforting, but about disrupted sleep and being unhappy. My mother died when I was eight and perhaps this shaded my view of life. There’s a lot of death in my books. This whole show leads to the death room. But then of course it would, because it’s the cycle of life.” In The Last Runway, quilting gives the heroine reassurance and a sense of familiarity as she faces the challenges of a new and occasionally hostile environment. The quilts in Chevalier’s show soothed their makers through painful times.

Chevalier compares curating a show to novel-writing. The process of decision making and selecting felt similar. “We want our books to find an audience, and there’s nothing worse than it not selling. You don’t want to spend all that time and then have 500 copies sell. We write for people to read it. More people are writing now. I go into a bookshop and I’m depressed by  the competition.”

Since writing Girl with a Pearl Earring, which sold four million copies, Chevalier has written five more works of historical fiction. But still it’s her second, published in 1998, that most people know her for. She’s working on one about trees, but still gets calls to discuss Vermeer, and is always introduced as the author of Girl with a Pearl Earring.

“I feel incredibly lucky I got that approbation,” she says. “The book and film sealed my reputation. I’m very grateful, but the difficult side is that everything I do is compared to it. Nothing I’ve done since has come near, and it’s probably how it will be all my life.”

Things We Do in Bed, Danson House, Bexleyheath, Kent ( to 31 October

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment & HR Administrator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Business Partner

£55 - 65k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: A HR Manager / HR Business Partner i...

Recruitment Genius: Senior HR Assistant

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company's vision is to be t...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map