A Single Thread is a work of historical fiction set between the two world wars, just as Hitler is gaining unprecedented power and adulation.
The story revolves around the life of Violet Speedwell, a so-called ‘Surplus Women’, who lost not only her elder brother but also her fiance during WWI. A rocky relationship with her mother, especially after the loss of her father, was the impetus for Violet seeking her own way and her own life.
But it wasn’t easy for this single, fiercely independent working woman, who is eventually drawn to Winchester Cathedral, and the group of Broderers working on kneelers, cushions, and alms purses, led by none other than Louisa Pesel.
However Violet cannot stitch at all and luckily falls under the uplifting spell Louisa Pesel weaves around them all. Louisa’s passion gives Violet the courage to learn to embroider and learn she does, creating work that will retain her hand and name for years to come.
This gentle, yet powerful story is easily relatable – who of us hasn’t felt gut-wrenching loss, and been nervous about making unprecedented life changes?
Tracy Chevalier uses terms such as ‘Sherry Men’ for Violet’s one-off dalliances but also adds the lure of a meaningful romance for our heroine. There are touches of subjects such as same-sex relationships and single motherhood, and people’s reactions to them at that time.
Yet for all that, the story ends happily, showing a level of introspection and intensity that makes this a very good read indeed.
And the historical link to Louisa Pesel and the Winchester embroideries is of special significance. Louisa Pesel was a very highly regarded embroiderer, teacher of embroidery, and writer of embroidery books – even teaching WWI soldiers the therapeutic benefits of making beautiful things through embroidery. She was ably assisted in this venture by fellow artist and designer, Sybil Blunt.
Louisa was also the first President of the Embroiderers’ Guild of England in 1920.
The fylfot is a design element used in embroideries that are often linked to Nazi Germany – yet Louisa shows Violet they were used in the Church since Medieval times. They both make use of the fylfot in their embroidery for the Cathedral.
A Single Thread aptly describes Violet – who by the end of the book may just surprise you.
Tracy Chevalier is an award-winning American-British novelist, best known for her book, ‘Girl With A Pearl Earring’.
A Single Thread was published by Viking in 2019. The Kindle edition offers a list of resources Tracy used as research for her book, including links to Westminster Cathedral, bellringing, Louisa Pesel, 1930’s women, and A Long Weekend: A Social History of Great Britain 1918-1939.