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April 1812 Leeds, Yorkshire
Annabelle Stirling reached out a hand to reverently stroke her shop's new gig mill, which would mechanize the raise of a fabric's nap. She'd scrimped from the shop's profits for over a year to afford it, and it was finally here. The shop had been chaotic and disorganized during the three days it took for the workmen to set it up, but it was surely worth it.
She frowned. All of the shop's workers, and half the village, were here to see it in operation for the first time. But where was Wesley?
"May I try it, Miss Stirling?" Henry asked. He was the first cropper they'd hired when deciding to expand from merely being cloth merchants to also taking rough cloth and doing the final finishing work on it. Since bringing on Henry, they—well, Belle—had hired three more croppers.
"Of course, it's only right that you should try it. You'll be the one in charge of it," she said.
Henry looked tentatively at the enormous piece of machinery, which looked like a large drum in the middle of a letter C. Fabric would be fed in at the top of the C, and fed around the spine and over the drum, straightening and stretching through a set of rollers, then would be gathered in soft folds at the bottom of the C. Henry stood facing the inside of the C, which towered at least two feet over his head, his foot poised over a foot pedal.
"When you're ready," she said quietly.
Henry began pumping his foot pedal, and a combination of gears and belts attached at various points to the mill screeched and protested loudly. Sweat was already pouring down the man's face as the drum began rotating slowly. He reached up and pulled the edge of the long length of fabric over the top of the C and into the first roller above the drum, feeding it in and out of the rollers that would automatically smooth the cloth, removing the nap in a consistent and reliable manner.
His audience stood breathlessly, Belle included, to see the finished product. After Henry had fed about ten yards of cloth through the machine, he stopped pedaling to examine the cloth. He furrowed his brow as he pinched a section of fabric and ran his thumb over it. He looked up at Belle.
"Miss Stirling, I don't know. Not as good as I could do myself."
Belle lifted a section of cloth that had been cropped and deposited in the bottom of the C. Henry was right. The finishing wasn't quite as fine as what he did. But she looked at the quantity of fabric that had been finished in record time and announced, "Henry, nothing could possibly replace your hands on a set of shears. But look at how much you've accomplished already this morning. I say the gig mill is a success."
And with that, everyone who had crowded inside the room ran forward to touch the fabric and form their own opinion on its quality.
Late in the day, after nearly everyone in their village near Leeds had come forward to handle the newly processed cloth and then gone off to gossip about it in the coffee shop, Henry came to her, hat in hand.
"I dunno, Miss Stirling, how we can 'spec to compete with merchants selling hand-finished cloth. My own work is much better, and I surely don't mind goin' back to it."
"Yes, your handwork is better, but you saw how much fabric you were able to finish in just a short amount of time."
He twisted his hat through his fingers. "Yes, ma'am. But it's your reputation I'm worried about. If you start selling poor-quality cloth and all."
She smiled. "Henry, your job is secure. I couldn't possibly do without you. I'm just glad you'll be able to accomplish so much more each day."
"Yes, ma'am." He continued to stand there, looking nervously from side to side.
"Is there more?"
"I was just wondering, er, whether Mr. Stirling was pleased about the new gig mill. I noticed he wasn't here when we started it up. Just thought he might have his own opinion."
"I'm not quite sure where Mr. Stirling is today. I know, though, that he will be quite delighted when he sees its remarkable potential for the shop."
Which wasn't entirely true, but enough to satisfy Henry and send him on his way back to his family for the night.
Where was Wesley today? He knew the gig mill was being installed and would be in operation for the first time this morning. Belle sighed. Although her brother, Wesley Stirling, had inherited the shop after both their parents had been swept away in a fever epidemic that had run through the area nearly five years ago, it was Belle who had taken responsibility for the small shop and its workers. Her parents ran it as merely a cloth merchant's shop, but Belle saw the benefit in bringing in pre-finished cloth and having it finished herself before sending it on its way downriver via the River Aire to land transport for eventual arrival and sale in London and beyond.
By establishing her own dressing shop and having fabric finished on the premises, she could control the final quality of what was sold and thereby manage the shop's growing reputation. The new gig mill didn't produce as fine a finish, but, oh, the output.
Not that Wesley had much interest. Much to their father's despair, her brother, older by two years, had run off to India with a local village girl, Alice Treadle, in some kind of business prospect that he never quite explained. When he was called back after their parents took ill, he never explained why Alice didn't accompany him on his return.
Wesley's presence was largely unnecessary, since he merely signed or approved whatever Belle wanted, leaving management of the shop to her and spending days—and sometimes nights—at undisclosed locations.
It had been this way for as long as she could remember. Her father—Fafa, as she always called him—had tried to encourage Wesley's interest in the business, but he was always more concerned with playing in the woods, or chasing birds, or, later, pursuing comely girls he fancied.
So when Belle first reached out a hand to stroke a piece of fabric and cooed about its softness, Fafa turned his attentions to his younger child. He and Belle would ride over to farms so she could stroke the backs of sheep, cattle, and goats, and Fafa would explain to her how wool, leather, and cashmere came from each animal, respectively, and why the animals must be husbanded properly for not only meat but skin and hair.
They visited fields together, where he would pick stalks of flax and place them in her hands. "This will become a linen fabric one day, Belle," he said, much to her amazement. How could a plant with sweet, pale blue flowers turn into lengths of linen, damask, and cambric?
"It can become fabric and more. Cabinetmakers turn its seed into an oil to finish wood. It's also used for medicine. But I'll show you how it becomes cloth."
They went to a heckling shop, where Fafa lifted her onto his shoulders to watch workers preparing dried flax fibers that had already had their seeds threshed and straw scutched, or separated, from the fibers. Belle was entranced as she watched workers drawing the flax stalks through what Fafa called heckling combs, each a bed of long iron pins driven into a wooden block. The shop contained various sizes of these combs.
"Why are they different?" she asked.
"Depends on what they're making," Fafa said. "The finer the combs, the finer the yarn spun from the flax will be."
The workers carefully drew the processed fibers through the nails, leaving behind more straw and even some of the fiber. The dust produced was stifling and the smell odious, but Belle was too spellbound in the rhythmic pulling and gathering to care.
Fafa pointed. "See the fiber left behind? It will be used to make rope. Practically every bit of the flax plant can be consumed for various purposes. The better fibers will be spun into yarns, and from there woven into different linen fabrics. The croppers will perform the final finishing on the fabric."
"But how does the yellow fiber become different colors?"
Fafa laughed at her enthusiasm. "Ah, Daughter, that's the dyeing and printing process. You have much to learn."
Belle was never sure what she loved more: learning about the cloth trade or spending so much time with her father. Eventually the two became one in her mind.
Fafa gave her simple tasks in the shop, such as sweeping scraps from the floor, and later taught her how to measure and cut. But she was also spending more and more time at his knee, learning.
As she grew older and could recognize various fabrics on sight, Fafa tested her in many ways. He would have her close her eyes, then place pieces of cloth in her hands, asking her to identify them by touch.
Sometimes he would randomly ask her questions. "I am a customer who needs to have a shirt made. What fabrics would you recommend for me?"
"For everyday wear or a dress occasion?"
"For warm days or cool?" she asked.
"Are you working class or an aristocrat?"
"Let's say I am an architect with aristocratic clients. More highly esteemed than, say, a butcher, but no hope of a title."
Ah, Fafa was trying to confuse her. "Then I would suggest our gray broadcloth for you, sir. Although it's a wool, it hangs lightly and will be comfortable on summer days. You will look elegant enough before your clients, but the pale color will prevent you overstepping your bounds as a tradesman and offending them."
Her father clasped her in his arms. "Ah, Belle, you are my clever girl. Your mother and I will be proud to watch you grow into a respected draper one day."
She basked in this kind of praise.
One day, Fafa presented her with a badge that he told her came from the Worshipful Company of Drapers in London. It signified that she was an honorary member of this guild. Her heart nearly swelled to bursting over the badge, which she wore pinned to every dress she had until the badge was nearly in tatters. Later she realized that her father had made the badge himself, but she loved him the more for it. She still kept the badge's remnant as a reminder of Fafa's faith in her talent.
Belle knew she was becoming the son and heir Fafa wanted. Papa's loving but resigned eyes acknowledged it. And Wesley's resentment reflected it.
The day Fafa said cryptically, "The future of the family is solely in your hands, Belle," she knew he intended the shop for her, not Wesley, even though her brother would be the official heir.
And so it happened. Belle learned more, Wesley cared less, and Fafa gradually turned responsibilities over to his teenage daughter. By the time Wesley returned from India following their parents' deaths, Belle was the de facto owner of the Stirling Draper Shop.
Belle shook her head. Well, it was better this way, for there was nothing more satisfying than being in the shop, her shop, rolling the long bolts of fabric after the croppers—now the gig mill—had done their work for the day. Even more, she enjoyed using cloth samples to show how they might cover plump pillows, or turn a drab settee into a striking centerpiece for a parlor. She perpetually kept an ever-changing tableau or two at the front of the shop to show local customers the latest fabric styles and how they could improve even the simplest home into one that was warm and inviting.
Many cloth merchants, Fafa included, were concerned about selling fabrics to dressmakers. Belle cared about getting her cloth turned into draperies, chair cushions, and sometimes even wall coverings. She wondered what Fafa would think now of the new mechanization taking place, and her interest in interiors.
The jangling of the doorbell broke her reverie. Hurrying out to the front of the shop, she greeted her customer warmly.
"Amelia! Have you come to see our new mill? I noticed you weren't here this morning."
"And from what I hear, I was the only person in Leeds who wasn't here. How fares the beast?"
"Come see." Belle led her friend to the room containing the gig mill, now stilled in the waning hours of daylight. She and Amelia Wood had been friends for as long as Belle could remember, although her own boisterous personality had overshadowed Amelia's shy, thoughtful nature. Belle remembered running into the rectory like a hoyden when she was around ten years old, a bundle of stinking, freshly shorn sheep's wool in her arms, picked up during a visit to a new weaver from whom Fafa was considering a purchase.
The vicar had shooed the two girls into the yard behind the rectory, and Belle spent the afternoon draping and rearranging the wool over Amelia's shoulders, finally convincing her friend that she'd made her a royal mantle. Amelia's patience for Belle's frolics was never ending, and Belle always tried to drag her friend out of her timidity. She was usually unsuccessful.
Amelia kept her hands behind her back while owlishly inspecting the machinery from behind her wire-rimmed glasses, as though afraid it might reach out and grab her. "It's quite ... immense," she finally proclaimed.
Belle laughed. "It is! And it will help me keep up with the other cloth manufacturers who can now supply far greater quantities to their London distributors. But enough about the shop; how's the vicar?"
"Papa's fine. He says it's high time we took you away from your servitude in the shop and had you up for tea. Come tomorrow?"
The following day, Belle was admitted to the rectory. Mr. Wood and Amelia greeted her and ushered her into their small parlor to wait for a tea tray. Mrs. Wood had died the year before Belle's parents, ensuring the two girls became close, different as they were. And despite Belle having her brother to look after her, Mr. Wood had stepped in as a sort of peevish uncle, determined to watch over her even if he didn't wholly approve of her taking over her parents' trade.
The tea was served scalding hot, exactly how Belle liked it. She blew gently on her cup while looking around the room.
"Belle, I see you're noticing our new portrait. A woman gave it to Papa as payment for officiating at her brother's funeral over in Huddersfield a few weeks ago."
The small painting was a religious allegory and appeared to be quite old.
"It's beautiful, but may I make a recommendation?" Belle said over the rim of her teacup.
Amelia leaned forward. "Of course," she said, pushing her glasses back against her face. Her glasses had been loose for some time, but despite Belle's urging, Amelia refused to see the optics man to have them fixed.
Belle put her cup down. "It's just that the portrait hangs too high upon the wall. It should come further down, like this." She stood next to the portrait and gestured to show that the subject's eyes should be nearly level with the viewer's.
Mr. Wood nodded his head seriously. "I see. And what of the rest of the room? Have we put everything in good order?"
The draperies are too heavy and dark. "Everything looks charming," she said, sitting down again. "This pound cake is delicious, Amelia. Do I taste Madeira in it? You've outdone yourself."
Her friend demurred graciously, willing to allow the subject change, but the vicar wasn't so pliable.
Shaking his head, Mr. Wood said, "Miss Stirling, you remind me more and more of your father each day. How proud—and yet exceedingly exasperated—he would be to see you now."
"I think he would be proud of the new gig mill. Did Amelia tell you about it?"
He turned to his daughter with a look that sent Amelia to fiddling with a basket of sewing next to her chair. "Indeed she did not," he said. "I suppose I'll have to take a walk down and admire it myself. Tell me, what has been the local reaction?"
"Approving, I think. Henry was an expert on it in no time, although he thinks it produces a poorer-quality product than what he can do with his hands. He's right, but it's foolish for me to have small batches of cloth finished by hand when I can have twice as much done in half the time."
Excerpted from BY THE King's Design by CHRISTINE TRENT Copyright © 2012 by Christine Trent. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted March 6, 2012
Review Copy Provided By~Publisher
A sweeping, detailed and intricate story of debauchery, gluttony, murder, rebellion and the grandeur of the Regency time-period. Christine Trent does a wonderful job of detailing the time of the King's reign during such turmoil in the early 1800's; it doesn't help that the people don't care for the newly crowned King George IV. He is a gluttonous man that loves his mistresses almost as much as he loves his food and opulence.
Belle is a draper that moves from her hometown to demand justice from Parliament for not protecting the common people, herself included, from Luddites that destroy the new mills that are replacing human workers. Things don't work out as she hopes, but life does move on. Belle opens her own drapers shop, along with her brother for help. Even though her brother was involved with the Luddite attack on her mill, she loves him, so she forgives his involvement. The Luddite attack with lead by her fiance, so when she leaves behind her hometown, she leaves him behind as well.
Due to her fiance's betrayal, Belle closes herself off to the idea of dating or marriage...so when it comes to cabinetmaker Putnam Boyce, he has a hard road to go to break through her defenses.
Belle proves herself as the Prince Regent's draper, even though she was only granted the post due to the Prince's 'interest' in her. Things are going well for Belle, except for her brothers decline into the world of opium and the influence of Mr. Thistlewood, a leader in the conspiracy to overthrow the Parliament and dethrone the King.
With ensuing turmoil, her brothers involvement revealed and vengeance aimed at Belle by someone she has never even met, Belle's life is once again turned upside down. Now she must try to save her brother's life and her livelihood...and ultimately, her life.
Author Christine Trent weaves in fact, fiction, grandeur and the hardships for the people of that time into a wonderful story of love, trust, betrayal, forgiveness and vindication. For those that love greatly detailed historical...this is a perfect book to pick up!
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Posted March 21, 2012
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