I have been asked many times since the release of Power and Majesty whether I sew myself – in particular, if I can make dresses like Velody can. If only! Dressmaking is one of those astounding skills that I romanticise in my head, but am incapable of actually doing myself. It’s not that I don’t love to sew, I’m just not very good at measuring. Or straight lines. When it comes to actually measuring straight lines, my head goes out the window.
You know how they say ‘measure twice, cut once?’ Well, my sewing technique is more along the lines of ‘think about measuring, remind self that measuring is really important, then throw measuring tape out the window and just APPLY SCISSORS’.
My pet craft, luckily enough, is quilting. Where cutting fabric into tiny pieces and sewing it back together again is a feature, not a bug! I love to hand piece (folding fabric over paper templates is the one way I am capable of sewing a straight line) because sewing machines freak me out, just a little. I love to machine quilt because it’s all about wavy lines, and it looks good even if you get a little madly creative, and who doesn’t love a machine with a laser pointer?
The owner of the quilting machine, who is something of a mentor to me, despairs of my ragged hems and a style that can only be describes as ‘slapdash,’ but admits I’m quite good with colour.
Crazy quilts are my favourite – you can throw in every half-baked sewing technique you’ve ever learned, blag the rest, and if you use enough velvet and kimono silk scraps, somehow it ends up looking like art. I’m currently working on a crazy quilt about The Creature Court – piecing a square for each character, like a jumbled scrapbook of who they are and what is most important to them. At the rate I’m going, the quilt will take me far longer than the books did!
I love to read about women who craft, too. Just about the only mainstream fiction I read these days involves women and quilting circles, or knitting yarn. Sometimes they fight crime, as well! You don’t find a lot of it in fantasy – though it is there, at times, around the edges. Most fantasy worlds are pre-industrial, and so clothes are hand-made and woven, food is cooked from scratch (even if, as the late great Diana Wynne Jones pointed out, it’s mostly stew) and every tool is clanged out from a real forge, by a blacksmith.
It always drives me crazy when the only person you see pick up a needle in a fantasy novel is the motherly type (cough, Polgara, cough) who does everyone’s mending, or a soppy damsel whose embroidery is a symbol of how useless she is. Before we had factories, sewing a straight line was an essential life skill, and while women have always taken on the majority of the domestic craft (it was often the only way to earn money from home, so you could mind the children at the same time) there’s no reason why we shouldn’t also see men fixing their own tunics or darning socks.
I also love it when crafting techniques are used in descriptions of magic. Sure, people call magic a ‘craft’ all the time, but I like it best when that is taken a step further, giving a realism to magical technique. One of my favourite books of 2010, Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey, placed magic as an important lady’s accomplishment in the Regency period, along with playing the piano, drawing, and dancing prettily. Her descriptions of ‘glamour’ make it feel like a real, tangible thing, and I thought it was particularly clever the way she showed that the few men who excelled at glamour were accorded professional status, while the women were expected to use it only to catch husbands
In Power and Majesty, I introduced three characters: Velody, Rhian and Delphine, who were each practicing craftswomen. This gave them jobs and a grounding in the world I was trying to convey, and also tied closely to the importance of religious festivals in their city of Aufleur. It also meant that I was able to write what I knew – about the pleasures and practicalities of making something, even if I did have to run the dressmaking scenes past someone who has actually done it. Having a dressmaker heroine also gave me the metaphors and descriptive defaults to reach for when she is trying to explain magic to herself for the first time.
In that first book of the trilogy, Velody’s craft and her fellow workers belonged to the daylight – they represented the part of her life she loved most, and what she wanted to protect from the darkness and magic of the new world she had been introduced to. But in the second book, The Shattered City, Velody’s two worlds are going to collide with a vengeance. Something as simple as a needle and thread could get people killed…
The Shattered City is out now and continues the story of Velody and the Creature Court. You can follow Tansy on Twitter, visit her website AND visit the official Creature Court website (don’t turn your back on anyone …)