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Sunday, November 17, 2013


Medieval re-enactors spinning and weaving
(photo by 
Peter van der Sluijs)
The most interesting fact about Jill Hughey is that she can sing really, really high. As in opera-singer high. But she only does that when she is not writing, working part time as a business administrator, running her two teenaged sons around, and enjoying the support of her wonderful husband. Her ideal afternoon is spent sitting on her front porch with an iced coffee as she moves the characters in her head into her laptop. Learn more about Jill and her books at her blog.

From Growing to Sewing in VAIN

I write historical romances set in the 830s in what is now France. When I wrote the first one, Unbidden, I included a line of dialogue from a character whom, at the time, I had no plan of giving his own book. Theo said, “I have my heart set on a woman who can sew. I would save a fortune.” He is joking, but in book three of my Evolution Series, his wish comes true when he reluctantly falls in love with his tailor’s daughter.

I originally envisioned Lily as a simple seamstress but she developed into a very creative woman, what we would now consider a designer, and she and Theo first begin to fall in love as she sews and embroiders a beautiful red tunic for him.

Researching the fabrics and tools Lily would have had available was fascinating. In Europe they mainly had flax for linen, and wool. After harvesting and cleaning the raw materials, they used plants to make dyes if they wanted a colored cloth. I learned, for example, that dogwood bark makes blue and sorrel root makes green. The flax or wool fibers would be cleaned with a vinegar and water bath, then soaked in a hot tea of dye before being dried and spun. A spindle was used for spinning, and the yarn they made was woven into cloth using small, simple looms.

Out of all the tasks I researched, I feel I have the least understanding of weaving. Lily weaves out of necessity, both to get cloth to sell as it is and to have material for sewing. Obviously there are not many medieval era wooden looms left in the world, so I looked at pictures and videos of re-enactors and subsistence societies for my idea of her loom being a large rectangular frame that leans on a wall. The loom itself became an important symbol to her, having been handed down from her late mother. She is heartbroken when her father sells it with their shop, then elated when Theo helps her to get it back.

Sewing was done with needles we would consider rustic. Thorn and bone were the most common materials available to the peasant class, much as they had been since cavemen walked the earth. Wealthier women might have brass or bronze needles that they kept carefully secured in a needle case. 

Most households performed all these tasks themselves, from growing to sewing. They could not afford to buy cloth, much less premade clothing. If they were lucky, they might have extra raw fibers or woven cloth to sell at a market. Needless to say, wardrobes were not large or ornate, though an aristocrat like Theo would be the exception. He, in particular, loves to wear interesting, fashionable clothes, hence his comment about needing a wife who sews.

And so I gave him Lily, by far the most creative woman I’ve written. Her passion for clothing became much more integral to the story and to her personality than I ever expected. Sewing is her livelihood but also her escape. The activity and creativity take her away from her troubles, and sharing her talent with Theo, in the form of a beautiful red tunic, is the foundation on which their love for each other is built.

Lily had her life planned, neat and tidy as thread on a spindle, until her mother died and her father snipped at the seams of her future by abandoning Lily in their shop. A nobleman unexpectedly gives her hope when he brings fabric for a special garment. Lily survives on his first payment, and immerses herself in sewing and embroidering an incomparable tunic for him, as her tidy plan continues to unravel.

Theophilus, Lord of Ribeauville, takes his responsibility to his townspeople seriously and, therefore, does not dally with local women. Desire wars with duty when Lily glances up at him while adjusting the hem on his Easter tunic. As her deteriorating circumstances push them together, Theo and Lily learn that the path to his heart just might be through his wardrobe, though the exquisite outfit she creates is the only part of her that fits in his precarious aristocratic world.

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Rosemary Gemmell said...

What a fascinating post, Jill - I do love medieval Europe!

Jill Hughey said...

Thank you for visiting, Rosemary. It is wonderful to be here today!

Unknown said...

Fascinating post. History is so cool. Book sounds great.

Jill Hughey said...

Yes, Victoria, one of the fun things about writing historical fiction is learning fun facts, some of which don't even make it into the stories. Thanks for commenting!