The Journey


Skeins of natural-dyed wool - The Nether Bailey in Stirling Castle, Scotland

Skeins of natural-dyed wool – The Nether Bailey in Stirling Castle, Scotland

They say “write about what you know” and for me that would be Catholic School (13 years), birds, dogs, raising boys, and nursing (germs, blood, horrible wounds, tragic deaths, etc.).  But if “they” said “write about what you love” that would be textiles  and Belgium. Oh, and also the Renaissance, all still-life paintings by Flemish painters, coffee, chocolate, interior design, museums, historical mysteries, languages, art, music, and everything possible about irreverent smart alecks.

As a child I had a huge curiosity about how things worked in the world. I was smitten with the Latin I heard daily in Mass, the stories of Belgium told by my Flemish family.

Fast forward 50 years or so and I’d already spent 40 years as a nurse, concentrating my time in the sciences, but attracted to art, especially tapestry.  There had to be stories in those tapestries. There was the allegory, but also there had to be a story behind the weavers, the wool dyers, the guilds.

A story took hold of me that was a mélange of codes as in Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code,” as well as the look and feel of another century as in Tracey Chevalier’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” Elements of love stories set in two time periods reflected my interest in A.S. Byatt’s “Possession.” And, voilà, the story went from an amorphous blob to a real outline on the page. Two time periods. Two loves. A tapestry with a secret. I had to travel to see tapestries. I had to know how they were made.

Bobbins - The Nether Bailey in Stirling Castle

Bobbins – The Nether Bailey in Stirling Castle

I had traveled to Bruges, Belgium previously with my husband. It was such a captivating place that I decided I would set a story there. I loved the feel, especially, of the nunnery, the Beguinage (or Beguinhof in Flemish). It truly is a place of rest and repose, where lovely, leafy trees tip down to meet green water and white swans glide by in small swirls. I remember sitting on a cobblestone street, sipping coffee served with Belgian chocolate while horses clopped by and decided this would be the place for a novel.

The story brewed in my mind for some time when I happened to be at Westminster Abbey, in the gift shop. I overheard a woman say, “Yes, they are making tapestry there the way they did in the 1500’s.” Being nosy, I sidled over and said, “Sorry to eavesdrop, but were you talking about tapestry?” That’s how I discovered that in Stirling Castle, Scotland, there was a tapestry project where expert weavers were making tapestries as was done in the 16th century.  I visited there and fell in love with the gorgeous work I saw at the Nether Bailey. Since I was there in February, it was terribly cold and windy with biting rain. I walked up a cobblestone hill, through the castle gate, and discovered that I was exactly where I needed to be, in the 16th century. On my first visit I nearly ran to the Nether Bailey (down a cobbled drive, under an arch, windblown and clutching a scarf to my face) but later I learned to stop at the Castle Café on my way for great coffee and soup.

At the end of the walkway was the wooden and glass-sided Nether Bailey, where the weavers sat in front of a large loom. Behind the loom were several wooden structures containing naturally-dyed wool and silk thread with wooden bobbins strewn about. Hanging next to the weavers was a color copy, wall sized, of the finished piece they were weaving, but behind the warp were the actual ‘cartoons’ of the tapestry. The room was warm and cozy. The weavers worked quietly and answered questions cheerfully. I was in heaven! I stayed for three days. The head weaver, Louise Martin, was good enough to fill in the holes in my knowledge about tapestry (amend ‘holes’ to ‘giant chasms’). I was allowed to touch the wool, stand behind the tapestry in progress, and photograph the work from all angles. Much of the time I simply watched in awe.

Tapestry in the making at The Nether Bailey in Stirling Castle.

Tapestry in the making at The Nether Bailey in Stirling Castle. Note completed weaving at left edge of photo and weft threads at right edge of photo with cartoon behind the warp threads. Photo has been turned 90 degrees clockwise.

I went on to Edinburgh and Glasgow to visit more museums and castles. I was falling back in time. I took myself to Paris to see the unicorn series in The Cluny Museum. The series is so stunning I sat with tears in my eyes and stared at the colors and artistry. There, as well, I visited the Gobelin Manufactory, where grand textiles are still made. It is located in the Latin Quarter (called such because it contained many schools where once all was taught in Latin – even casual street conversation was in Latin).

Another trip took me to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. If you haven’t been there, I say run, run, run to that museum. The place is magnificent, the exhibits are done beautifully and it has a friendly, interactive feel to it. There are mini study rooms strewn about for contented research. There I had the wonderful surprise of seeing a full wall-sized completed tapestry commissioned in 1515 on one side of a room, and the cartoon by Rafael, from which it was woven, on the other side of the room.

I also visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and The Cloisters (site of one original set of the unicorn tapestries – the Cluny in Paris is the other site).

This journey has been, for me, a delightful exploration of what makes the soul sing. While writing I surrounded myself with pictures of tapestries and costume of the time. I called an ex-FBI agent to pick his brain about art theft. I called a PhD in medieval gardens to ask about gardens of the period. I emailed costume experts. I consulted a coin expert, and so forth, to get the feel of the time. I purchased music of the early Renaissance and played it while I wrote. I consulted friends who wrote romance novels.

In the end I discovered that I have many more stories to tell, and like Dorothy, have only to put my foot on the Yellow Brick Road to start at the beginning.

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