Novelist imagines the making of the Bayeux Tapestry

“Sex, lies, embroidery.” I don’t know about you, but that subtitle got my attention when I discovered “The Needle in the Blood,” a novel about the Bayeux Tapestry by British author Sarah Bower. While I waited for the book to arrive, I went online to refresh my memory about the tapestry, which actually is an embroidery and for me the Holy Grail of needle and thread.

No one knows for sure who stitched it or where, but it may have been commissioned by Bishop Odo, half-brother to William the Conqueror, who became king of England after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Some experts believe the tapestry was stitched in England and not in Bayeux, Normandy, France, although it was intended for the cathedral Odo had built at Bayeux. Another theory is that it was commissioned and created by William the Conqueror’s wife, Queen Matilda,and her ladies-in-waiting.

The piece measures nearly 230 feet long and consists of approximately 50 scenes depicting events leading up to the Norman conquest of England. It is stitched on linen with wool thread colored with dyestuffs some experts believe are associated with England.

Only three women are stitched into the tapestry — one may be Edith, the wife of King Edward the Confessor. Another unidentified woman is shown with a child beside her and a burning building behind them. The third figure is sometimes referred to as The Mystery Woman, though embroidered above her is the name Aelfgyva, a common Saxon name of the times. Beside her, reaching to touch — or smite, as some interpret the gesture — her head, is a man identified as Bishop Odo. The meaning of the scene is not known.

And it is within this and other unknowns that Bower has unleashed her writing powers to imagine what was going on between Aelfgyva and Odo. Well, you can guess. But in the process, she also imagines how the tapestry might have come to be commissioned, who stitched it and what life was like for the conquered Saxons under the rule of William, the Norman king. She also gives the reader a detailed and fascinating look into how people of the times lived, what they ate, how they dressed and how they warred upon one another.

My favorite part of the book was about the creation of the tapestry and the women involved. My least favorites were graphic descriptions of the brutality visited on the Saxons by the Normans, and the fact that the book is written in present tense. But I was caught up in the story and kept turning pages, marveling at the amount of research Bower must have done to weave such life, fire and passion into her story.

Before I got the book, I read about the Bayeux Tapestry at, where visitors can look at the tapestry scene by scene; read about its history; learn about the people in it including Aelfgyva, the other two women and Bishop Odo; and find out what happened in England after the Battle of Hastings. At the website, you can create your own tapestry by clicking on icons of various features of the tapestry, such as people, King Harold, the bishop, Westminster Abbey and other buildings, though not any of the three women.

Though I have never seen the Bayeux Tapestry and am unlikely to, I like knowing that something as simple as outline and couching stitches, the primary stitches used in the embroidery, could become the building blocks of a work of fabric art that has endured for centuries.

Go to to access long lists of knitting, crochet, embroidery and sewing project patterns.

I gleaned this information from President Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, who died in 1995, was a weaver in her younger years. She developed an interest in collecting batiks when she married for the second time and went to live in Indonesia in the 1960s. Some of the batiks from her collection were exhibited at The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., in 2009, the final stop on a national tour of the exhibition “A Lady Found a Culture in its Cloth: Barack Obama’s Mother and Indonesian Batiks.” Current exhibits at the museum are “The Sultan’s Garden: The Blossoming of Ottoman Art” on display through March 20, 2013, and “Dragons, Nagas and Creatures if the Deep” on display through Jan. 6, 2013.

Go to to access information about stitching events during October, including, Mending in Tattered Times, noon-3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, Oct. 16-19; Crochet and Cross Stitch Day, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 24; Southern Maine Lace Group, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 25; and Constucting a Silk Vest using Shibori Silk Hand Dyed by the Artist, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday, Oc. 31, at Maine Fiberarts in Topsham. The events are free.

Manuel Abeiro Horta and Modesto, visiting artists from Mexico, will conduct a wooden mask making demonstration 4-9 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 18, at Margaritas Mexican Restaurant in Orono.
The demonstration is free and open to the public.

Call Ardeana Hamlin at 990-8153, or email Don’t forget to visit her blog at