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  • Barbara Stark-Nemon

Stitching Together the Novel Research

By now, many of my readers and anyone who knows me well have learned that I love book research, and in the course of my five years of doing author talks and interviews, one of the most frequent questions I’m asked regards how I conduct research. My next novel takes place in early 17th century Portugal, France, and Germany. It requires even more research than either of my two previous works. In these days of stay-at-home, it’s also interesting diversion.

Isabella, my main character, is a young embroideress in Portugal and she is assisted on the journey she must take to Germany in order to escape the Inquisition by an older Spanish woman who is an herbalist and healer. A dear friend gifted me with a book that has captivated me and will surely inform the story. Its title alone intrigued me. Threads of Life, by Clare Hunter, tells the story of embroidery in Europe, and includes the development of stitchery entwined with the history over centuries of the people and places where embroidery was cultivated. It also tells of the plants that found their way into fabrics, dyes, thread and decoration starting in the 10th century. Inevitably the history of embroiderers became the history of the women who embroidered, the perfect background information I need to move forward with my story of Isabella.

I have also now read quite a number of historical novels and non-fiction books surrounding the early 17th century in Europe. Inevitably, a number of them hark back to the Tudor and Stuart kings and queens. One story in Threads of Life is about Mary Queen of Scots, whose complicated life between Scotland and France is a colorful part of history. Her son James became king of England during the time my novel takes place.

Hunter tells us that Mary was an expert embroideress, an art she learned in France where embroidery had moved from monasteries to castles and into home production. Women used needlework to claim their place in the world, “stitching down political comment or feminist complaint, documenting their experience through domestic sewing.” During the16th and 17th centuries, “embroidery was one of the most precious forms of …communication , valued as a transmitter of intellect and emotion - when it was a conversation between people and their God, the church and its congregation, ruler and subjects. Needlework had power and embroiderers had value.” A writer knows when she’s found a deep source of material when every page requires notes!

Another great find has been The Herbalist’s Bible- John Parkinson’s Lost Classic Rediscovered, by Julie Burton-Seal and Matthew Seal. This reconstruction of the herbal world of the early 17th century is largely based on the work of Parkinson, a writer, gardener, herbalist, botanist and apothecary. More fun research!

And finally, personal connections I’m developing online have brought me to wonderful artists like the Portugese embroiderer Meri Almeida who does a blog called "agulhas da méri," and has been a great resource. Here’s a link to her website…

Are you aware of other resources on life in early 17th century Portugal, Spain, France or Germany that I should know about? Let me know!