I wrote Patchwork while living next to a South Carolina mill town, near Clemson where I was teaching. I chose the rented house I lived in partly because of the address, Star Route, and because of the views from the long road that cut a meandering line between the hills. Gradually I learned I was surrounded by older, retired mill workers. The mills were mostly closed by then, but my neighbors had stood day after day in front of large, powerful looms and rows and rows of spindles. They had gnarled hands from untangling threads and hearing loss from the din of the machines. As I immersed myself in their world, collecting stories and data, I began to carry a tape recorder with me each time I was introduced to another retired worker. When they learned I was collecting material for a novel about the mills, they brought out the old shuttles and bobbins they’d saved, and they generously spun their stories, including the accidents they’d suffered, the jokes they’d shared, and the fears they’d lived with.

I have two sisters, and my love for them exceeds that of friendship, extending past our historical connection and beyond any future. When an older neighbor introduced me to her sister, I knew I’d found the seeds for the imaginary characters in my novel. The two older women had worked in the mills starting when they were young, in the 1930’s. They were as different from one another as the dark and light threads of a piece of fabric, and I sensed the fights that had resulted because of those differences, but also the love and the absolute loyalty. As the relationships between the three fictional sisters in my novel emerged, I expanded my research to flesh out the background for a family sage that would include several decades. The tiny, local library was filled with records of mill history and maps that showed how the mill towns had altered the land. Not far from my house were several old, mostly abandoned mill towns with their rows of houses hidden by back roads and wooded hills. I drove up and down those hills and around the tight circles that led to the top where a large owner's or manager’s house often stood, looking down on its kingdom. Eventually, I secured a day pass to tour a mill that still operated in the old way, using people instead of machines. I experienced the noise of the looms and felt the rhythmic thudding of the shuttles. I watched a woman who stood at the end of a long, wide warp of threads, her eyes focused on the unwinding, pealed for a chance crossed thread. I saw the spinning spindles with their deep indigo color, threads that would eventually be woven into blue jeans.

It was difficult to let go of this world when the book was finished, hard to stop my expanding research, which had become an obsession. I recall those towns and my fictional Ash Hill each time I drive along a wooded road that leads through the hills, and I think of the voices I heard of those who had lived in them.

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