An award-winning novelist, Judy Alter is the author of five Kelly O’Connell Mysteries two Blue Plate Café Mysteries. Her work has been recognized with awards from the Western Writers of America, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame. She has been honored with the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement by WWA and inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame. Learn more about Judy and her books at her website and her blog.
One of my favorite characters in recent Kelly O’Connell Mysteries is Ms. Lorna McDavid, reclusive diva who finally warms enough to Kelly’s daughter to hold them spellbound with stories of her stay in China and her days in Hollywood. The girls may be entranced but Kelly is skeptical. She is, however, grateful that Ms. Lorna omits the part about smoking opium in China, a habit she says that accounts for her current addiction to marijuana.
Ms. Lorna rarely leaves her house, sending Kelly and Keisha to do her shopping. At home she wears elaborately embroidered silk dressing gowns, which she says she orders from China because the quality of embroidery from this country is so poor. Ms. Lorna’s penchant for these dramatic gowns sent me on a hunt for images and the history of Chinese embroidery.
Legend has it that a Chinese Empress was taking tea beneath a mulberry tree when a silk cocoon fell into her tea. As she pulled it out, the thread began to unravel. She saw the beauty and strength of the thread. This was probably 4000 to 3000 BCE, the Neolithic era when the first records of silk embroidery are found. By the 5th century BCE more than a quarter of the Chinese population was producing silk and embroidery. By the 14th century, silk trade flourished and production was at its peak.
In the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644) the quality of materials and the skill of the embroiderers increased. Embroidery became part of the popular culture, with new inventions and innovations. Workers split thin thread, used thin needles, matched exquisite colors and created elegant styles, sometime combining painting and embroidery in one garment or panel and using metallic threads.
After the Ming Dynasty came the Qing Dynasty and embroidery continued to flourish, incorporating techniques from Japan and other places. In the late Qing Dynasty, however, China suffered from government corruption and plunder. In 1949 the Republic of China took over, and times became hard, with poverty and wars. Artists could barely survive, let alone turn their attention to embroidery. With the People’s Republic (1949—a little before Ms. Lorna would have been there), life again became good and embroidery among other things flourished, although subjects were political leaders or politically approved topics. The Cultural Revolution caused a ten-year halt, but after that, embroidery increased again. Unfortunately few old pieces survived. If someone offers you an early 19th century piece, be sure to have it professionally vetted.
Today most handwork has been replaced by machinery. Handmade work, some of it very sophisticated, still is common in southern China and a few very special pieces are made throughout the country. I suspect Ms. Lorna’s gowns, if they came from China, were machine-made.
Design is the most important element. Artists seek inspiration in landscapes, animals, floral designs, and portraits, and then sketch their design on special paper. Pinpricks for the design are made on the paper with tiny needles, and the design is thus transferred to silk or satin. The designer chooses the colors from a wide selection and stretches the fabric on a hoop. Then comes the embroidery—it takes ten years at least for an embroiderer to master the trade. When the embroidery is done, the fabric is removed from the hoop and scalded to make it shiny and alive.
I wanted this Kelly novel to be Ms. Lorna’s book and it is, though I think in a way that will surprise you. While trying to unravel the secrets—and truth—of Mr. Lorna’s life, Kelly encounters a woman desperately searching for her birth mother, a deceptive televangelist, and a hit man. No one is telling the whole truth, and Kelly doesn’t know who to trust except Mike. He, for once, doesn’t tell her to back off, even when the search or truth takes them from Fort Worth to San Antonio.
From now on silk gowns with Chinese embroidery will forever remind me of Ms. Lorna. Now where is that one in the way back of my closet?
Deception in Strange Places
A woman desperately seeking her biological mother, a televangelist determined to thwart that search, a hired hit man, and in the midst of it all, a reclusive diva. Kelly has gotten herself involved in a dangerous emotional tangle this time, and Mike doesn’t tell her to back off, even when events take them from Fort Worth to San Antonio.