Interview: Tracy Chevalier, Author Of 'A Single Thread' Chevalier's new novel follows one of the generation of "surplus women," who lost their men in World War I and had to make new lives for themselves — sometimes outside the bounds of convention.

Tracy Chevalier Says 'A Single Thread' Can Make All The Difference

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Violet Speedwell is a surplus woman. She lost her brother and her fiance to World War I, and she's accepted that she's not going to have a husband or a family. Violet is the protagonist of Tracy Chevalier's new novel "A Single Thread." We meet her in 1932, wanting a life of her own. So she leaves her family home and moves to nearby Winchester and joins a group of women who make embroidered kneeling cushions for a cathedral there.

NPR's Petra Mayer met up with Chevalier at Winchester Cathedral to talk about Violet and the life she stitches together.

PETRA MAYER, BYLINE: Tracy Chevalier and I are standing in the choir of Winchester Cathedral, surrounded by lacy, carved wood and marble, long rows of benches made a little less hard by the addition of bright needlepoint cushions designed to protect aching backs and knees from all that wood and stone.

TRACY CHEVALIER: Look at the stitching. It is just extremely intricate.

MAYER: The choir stalls, the vaulted ceilings, even the ancient graffiti scratched into the walls - almost all of it was made by men.

CHEVALIER: The one thing in the cathedral that was made by women that we know was made by women were these kneelers and cushions. And I was immediately interested in them. Afterwards, it became obvious to me - ah, yes, of course. Tracy, you've chosen the story of the women.

MAYER: Those women were the Winchester Cathedral Broderers, a group of volunteers who took on the years-long project of making all the kneelers and cushions that are still in use here today. In the book, Violet stumbles into a service at the cathedral where the broderers are presenting their work to be blessed. She looks closer at one of the kneelers. And when she turns it over, she sees initials and a date. Someone has left her mark. And Violet thinks...

CHEVALIER: I want to make my mark by making a cushion or a kneeler that's going to last for hundreds of years here. Shall I show you her kneeler?

MAYER: Oh, yes, please.

CHEVALIER: OK. Here we go.


CHEVALIER: Violet wants to make a kneeler, and she gets to choose which design she wants to make. So she chooses this one that we're looking at, which is - I call it the acorn cushion.

MAYER: Chevalier chose this cushion as Violet's inspiration. It has a central motif of cheerful, checkered acorn caps set on a delicately textured blue background. It's worked with simple stitches that were designed so that almost anyone could learn them. In fact, Chevalier did learn them during her research. And yes, whoever made it has included her initials on the back - P.O.K. - and a date - 1932. That's a date that will become important in the book as Violet and her friends keep an uneasy eye on the rise of Adolf Hitler.

Just above us on the wall, another person has made his mark.

COLIN COOK: There's this amazing graffiti on the wall, which was put there, as we can now see, in the year of our Lord God 1545.

MAYER: That's Colin Cook, one of the bell ringers at the cathedral.

COOK: And the man who did it - he's put his name down there - Harey Coppar. And it says he was sworn bell ringer in that year.

MAYER: Winchester Cathedral's bell tower also becomes a refuge for Violet almost as much as the embroidery workroom. Cook is here to show us around the tower, which involves a hair-raisingly (ph) steep spiral staircase.


MAYER: We emerge at the top, huffing and puffing, into a large room with loops of thick rope - the bell pulls - arranged in a kind of chandelier on the ceiling. Cook lowers the ropes and gives us a demonstration of what Violet would have seen here, hauling on the heavy bell pull with all his might.


COOK: Harder and harder, further and further, the bell is swinging.

CHEVALIER: When Violet's working on the kneelers and the cushions, she's right there in the middle of the cathedral where all of the services are taking place, whereas the bell chamber has its own world above the cathedral, its own rules and regulations. Back at that time, there were very few women - would have come up here. So it's very special that she does.

MAYER: Violet loses herself and her troubles in the complexity and precision of the bells and finds herself through an unconventional relationship with one of the bell ringers and her work with the embroiderers. Chevalier says it only takes a single thread to make a difference in a cushion or a life. And while Violet is single...

CHEVALIER: That wasn't a bad thing. That can actually be a positive thing.

MAYER: And at the end, she - not - I'm not spoiling anything. But she is the thread that stitches together a new kind of family.

CHEVALIER: Exactly. I couldn't have put it better myself.

MAYER: Petra Mayer, NPR News, Winchester.


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