A Single Thread – Tracey Chevalier

Author: Chevalier, Tracy

 London, Harper Collins, 2019 ISBN: 978 0 00 815382 3 346 pages 

If you have noticed how many pages this book has and are thinking, that’s a large book, you would be right. But this book is not the usual book about embroidery. It’s a novel – a novel in which embroidery plays a significant part, which is why I decided to review it for you.  

Among the several books Tracey Chevalier has written are ‘Girl with a pearl earring’, ‘The lady and the unicorn’ and my personal favourite, ‘Remarkable creatures’. For me, one of the deep pleasures I get from Tracy’s novels, is the careful and through research she carries out before writing – research which never feels intrusive as the stories unfold but rather, enhances them. 

A single thread’ is the story of Violet Speedwell, a surplus woman. There were several of them after World War I after so many young men were killed. What a terrible label it is. Neither Violet’s older brother or fiancé returned from the trenches. Shortly after the war, her beloved father died. Violet was stuck. She was expected to stay home with her mother, who, unable to be pleasant to her daughter or remaining married son and doomed to see the gloomy side of everything, was difficult to live with. When the opportunity came for Violet to transfer to Winchester, she took it and moved into fairly depressing digs – anything to be independent. She really struggled to make ends meet. Office politics hardly cheered her up either. 

While visiting Winchester Cathedral, Violet heard about the group of volunteer women who were embroidering replacement kneelers and cushions for the choir. These women were supervised by a remarkable teacher, Miss Louisa Pesel, the actual person who the bishop had asked to undertake the daunting project and who has an integral role in the novel. All other characters are fictional. Violet became a member of the cathedral broderers, where she makes a particular friend, who introduces her to other people outside the group, one of whom becomes the romantic interest in the book. I don’t want to give away any spoilers so need to be careful what I reveal. However, I learned much about the embroideries themselves and the process for designing and working them.  

I loved this book. The outcome of Violet’s romance is a little startling, as are some of the friends she makes along the way. She is the real star of the story, becoming the single thread which holds a new family together. Nevertheless, the embroideries, the broderers, the staff and other volunteers at the cathedral play significant parts in Violet’s life. Her relationships are what the novel is about. However, being an embroiderer and learning something about the cushions and kneelers meant I just had to look on the internet to see what I could find. I was not disappointed! The link is rather lengthy, so I suggest you type into your search engine ‘Winchester Cathedral needlepoint’. Click on ‘images’ and you will see the resplendent items themselves. Seeing them online, I am completely smitten and understand why Tracy Chevalier became curious about their history and wrote a novel inspired by these marvellous treasures. 

 Erica Marsden