FEATURE: Family's history in silk weaving inspires Sudbury writer's new novel
When your family has been weaving silk for 300 years, it would be surprising if that lustrous legacy left no mark on your life.
Liz Trenow became a writer and enjoyed a long career in journalism and communications. But when she diverted into fiction, her heritage shone through.
Silk is often the thread that runs through her historical novels, including the latest, The Dressmaker of Draper’s Lane.
It takes readers into the opulent heart of London’s 18th century silk trade, where her own ancestors began their business in 1720.
Liz grew up in Sudbury, in the house next door to Stephen Walters’ silk mill, where her father, Peter, was managing director.
Her nephew, Julius Walters, is now in charge – the 10th generation of their family to run the company.
Its illustrious history includes numerous royal commissions, among them the stunning fabric for the Queen’s coronation gown.
They also wove the white satin for Princess Anne’s wedding dress, and the silk taffeta in which Princess Diana walked down the aisle.
“Stephen Walters celebrates its 300th anniversary next year,” said Liz.
“The business started in London and moved to Sudbury in the mid-1800s. It’s the oldest silk weaving business in the country continually owned by one family.”
But Liz had her heart set on a career with words. “I studied English at university, and knew I was going to be a writer of some kind,” she says.
She became a journalist working in newspapers, on the BBC’s Look East news programme, and in local government communications.
Later, she moved to Suffolk County Council’s Connexions service, which gave support and advice to teenagers.
Then, having taken early retirement, her thoughts turned to writing fiction. “I decided to do an MA in creative writing at the City University in London,” she says.
“My goal was to write a novel. I wanted to see if I could do it, and writing a full-length novel was what I had to do for my dissertation.
“It turned out to be just the right thing for me because, at the end of it, I had a book I could tout round to agents.”
That book, The Last Telegram, was based on stories her father had told her about the Second World War when their company was weaving parachute silk in Sudbury.
And it caught the imagination of Christopher Little, the literary agent who had earlier spotted the potential of another first-time author ... J K Rowling.
“He was a bit of a legend. It was a huge boost to have someone like him as my agent,” says Liz.
“I am a classic example of ‘it’s never too late’. I was 60 when my first book was published,” says the author who has two daughters and three grandchildren, and lives in Essex with artist husband David.
Silk sparked the idea for another book while she was doing research at the Warner Textile Archive in Braintree.
She found out about the May Silks, which were created for Queen Mary’s wedding to George V in 1893.
“I wove that into my novel The Forgotten Seamstress, where a piece of May Silk is included in a quilt.”
She turned for advice to renowned Suffolk quilting expert Lyn Edwards, who designed the quilt that was central to the story.
As 2014 approached, her publisher asked for a book to mark the anniversary of the First World War. The Poppy Factory tells the story of two women a century apart struggling to cope with the aftermath of war.
“Then,” she says, “I had a yearning to go back to silk. I’d been writing the history of our family company and discovered the first known address of our forebears.
“It was in Spitalfields, a small area of Georgian houses right in the middle of London, which now has huge tower blocks towering over it.
“I went and knocked on the door. The owner listened to what I had to say, then she invited me in.
“It’s Grade I listed and felt just as it would have done when my ancestors were there. In the roof is a weaving loft, which is now her bedroom. I determined then and there that I would write a book set in that house.
“As I walked along the street, I saw a blue plaque on a house where Anna Maria Garthwaite, a very eminent silk designer, had lived – and realised my family would have known her.”
Armed with fresh inspiration, Liz set her next book, The Silk Weaver, in 18th century Spitalfields, where romance blossoms between young Suffolk artist Anna and weaver Henri.
Then came In Love and War, published in 2018 to mark 100 years since the end of the First World War.
“It was inspired by something I read while researching The Poppy Factory, about battlefield tourism after the war,” she explains.
“All my books have sold abroad, but that one more than any of them. I’ve just got a contract for it from Russia.”
Her newest novel was published last week. Its heroine, first seen as a supporting character in The Silk Weaver, is a foundling who rose from poverty to become a couturier to high society.
“Fiction is a completely different craft from journalistic writing,” says Liz. “It took me a long time to adapt.
“It’s a big task writing 90,000 words. Sometimes, it feels a bit like grappling with an octopus.
“I am a disciplined writer. If you’ve been commissioned, you have to deliver. I don’t find it easier as I go along, because each novel has different challenges.”
The Dressmaker of Draper’s Lane is available from book stores and online.
Liz is giving a talk and signing copies at Clare Library on Thursday, March 7, at 6.30pm (tickets are available from Harris and Harris bookshop in Clare). She will also be at Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury on Thursday, April 11, between 6pm and 8pm.