On New Releases, Axminster Carpets and the Peculiar World of Publishing by Julia Justiss

Thanks to the Riskies for inviting me to share their elegant space! As I settle into my Chippendale chair and wait for them to pour tea, let me muse a bit on what prompted this topic.

First, I’m excited that the next book in my on-again, off-again Wellingford family series, FROM WAIF TO GENTLEMAN’S WIFE, is now on the shelves. The story of Ned Greaves, good friend of Nicholas Stanhope, Marquess of Englemere, hero of my first book, had simmered in mind for a number of years. I was delighted to give Ned, a self-proclaimed “simple country gentleman” a chance to encounter and win a bewitching lady while they both try to save a failing agricultural property and solve a mystery.

The obligatory blurb: “When a destitute governess faints on Sir Edward Greaves’s threshold, chivalry demands that he offer her temporary shelter. However, the desire Ned feels when he catches her in his arms isn’t at all gentlemanly.

In spite of his attraction to her, Ned finds it extremely suspect that a lady claiming to be the sister of the fired estate manager happens to end up on his doorstep just after his carriage has been attacked by Luddite agitators. But Joanna Merrill’s large, troubled eyes and slender frame call to something deep inside this guarded man. For one who has purposefully shunned the conniving beauties of London society, just how much is Ned risking by allowing this intriguing woman under his roof?”

Though I truly love this story, in the odd time warp world of writerdom, it has been hard to fully wrap my mind around the reality of its release. While I’ve been doing some blogs and contests to promote WAIF (visit my website, http://www.juliajustiss.com/, for a chance to win a sample of heroine Joanna’s exotic perfume,) I’m also simultaneously going through the final edits for next summer’s release, THE SMUGGLER AND THE SOCIETY BRIDE, (Book 3 of a first-ever 8-book Regency continuity series that features three main families, scandal, murder, a hanging and revenge that reaches into the next generation.) And at the same time, I’m struggling with an unusually recalcitrant Muse to write my next story—another Wellingford tale—that features Greville Anders, that fired-estate-manager brother of WAIF heroine Joanna Anders Merrill.

As for the edits, along with changing back to commas the copy editor’s strange predilection for colons—in the middle of sentences—I also scratched my head over the c.e. changing “Axminster carpet” to “soft carpet.” Although I knew these carpets were accurate to the Regency period, the copy editor’s questioning of the term spurred me to research them a bit further.

It’s true enough that carpeting as we think of it was unknown in Regency England. Wall-to-wall didn’t exist and woven carpets were still quite rare and expensive.

Knotted woolen and silk carpets were first brought back by Crusaders from the Middle East. Although elaborately embroidered and designed wall hangings had been made in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, not until the 17th century did monarchs there, eager to embellish their palaces with all manner of luxury items, begin to sponsor local craftsmen to produce such “Oriental” carpets.

Having taken over from the Italians the mantle of being Europe’s premier producer of luxury goods (when the Sun King Louis XIV imported Italian artisans to tutor French craftsmen,) it’s not surprising that the French were in the forefront of carpet-making. In 1627, by royal order, the Savonnerie factory was established at Chaillot in Paris to create pile carpets for use in the king’s palaces and as royal gifts. This establishment, which later merged with the famous tapestry-making firm Gobelin, created carpets with floral and architectural patterns, some based on designs (called “cartoons”) by famous painters. (The business continues today, still crafting exquisitely-made carpets for a discriminating and wealthy clientele.)

The carpets made at Savonnerie greatly influenced the designs of other firms, including the one established at Axminster by cloth maker Thomas Whitty in 1755. Like those produced in France, Axminster carpets often featured architectural or floral patterns that mimic those of Oriental carpets. And like fine carpets to this day, the Axminster designs were hand-knotted of wool on woolen warps with wefts of flax or hemp.

Although other carpet works were begun about the same time in Exeter and near London, Whitty’s firm in Axminster established itself as the premier producer of English-made carpets. King George III and Queen Charlotte visited the works, and following the royal lead, orders were quickly placed by others of wealth and high rank. Axminster carpets soon graced the Royal Pavillion at Brighton, Warwick Castle, Saltram House and Chatsworth.

Axminster, I discovered, is located in Devon—along whose smuggling-rich coast the story I’m currently working on, Greville’s story, takes place. In a further curious coincidence, Powderham Castle, the stately home outside Exeter in Devon I’d already chosen as the prototype for the dwelling of Lord Bronning, father of Greville’s heroine Amanda, happens to possess one of the first and finest of Axminster’s carpets.

Powderham Castle was built in 1391 by Sir Philip Courtenay and is still owned by the Courtenays today. The original castle, rebuilt and modified over the years, was further embellished by William Courtenay, third Viscount Courtenay and later Earl of Devon, with the addition of a Music Room designed by the famous architect James Wyatt. This handsome chamber also featured a carpet made by the newly formed Axminster Carpet Company–the biggest carpet ever made by the firm, until the Prince Regent heard of it and ordered a larger one. (Can we say “carpet envy?”)

Axminster dominated the English carpet market until 1835, when Samuel Rampson Whitty, grandson of the founder, declared bankruptcy following a disastrous fire which destroyed the weaving looms. With competition from Europe and the rise of high-quality but cheaper, machine-made carpets, it was too expensive to try to revive the works.

The Blackmores of Wilton, near Salisbury, bought the remaining stock and looms. Weaving had been a prominent trade in Wilton since the 17th century, and at the turn of the 19th, Lord Pembroke helped establish the Wilton Royal Carpet Factory. With this purchase, the firm extended their business to include patterned, hand-knotted carpets, which despite the change of location were still called “Axminsters.”

But in the mid-20th century, another curious development occurred. A carpet manufacturer named Harry Dutfield beguiled the tedium of a train journey by chatting with a vicar with a heavy West Country accent. Upon learning of Dutfield’s occupation, the vicar told him about the famous Devon town where carpet-making had thrived before the disastrous fire in the 1830’s. Intrigued, Dutfield followed up on the story and in 1937, began again to manufacture carpet in the town of its historic roots–Axminster.

In 2005, another event occurred to complete the merger of copy-edit suggestions, my research about Devon, Powderham Castle and the Courtenays. For the 250th anniversary of carpet weaving in Axminster, a special commemorative rug was produced. As in days of old, when church bells rang to signal the completion of each time-consuming, hand-made work of art, this special carpet was paraded by Axminster’s weavers through the town to the Minster Church, where it was blessed by the Bishop of Exeter. It was then presented to the Queen’s representative—the 18th Earl of Devon, William Courtenay–to be conveyed to its new home at Clarence House–the home of HRH the Prince of Wales.

I think “our” Prinny would be pleased.

(By the way, you can visit Axminster’s website, http://www.axminster-carpets.co.uk/250years.htm, to see a photo of the rug-carrying ceremony.)

There’s something inherently satisfying about discovering a family and a business that has thrived from early days through Regency times to our own. Inspired by those events, when I mailed in my changes to the copy edits, I instructed production to change “soft carpet” back to “Axminster carpet.”

So, what do you think? Will the odd place name pull you out of the story–or add to its richness? Do you prefer the boring adjective “soft?” Log in your comments for a chance to win an autographed copy of WAIF. (Though I should dearly love to offer one of Axminster’s finest carpets as the prize, I fear I shall have to limit myself to books!)

About diane

Diane Gaston is the RITA award-winning author of Historical Romance for Harlequin Historical and Mills and Boon, with books that feature the darker side of the Regency. Formerly a mental health social worker, she is happiest now when deep in the psyches of soldiers, rakes and women who don’t always act like ladies.
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Barbara Monajem
12 years ago

Dang! I typed in a comment, touched the elusive key that opens the black hole to cyberspace, and whoosh! Gone. If it shows up later… Grrr.

Thank you for keeping Axminster where it belongs. It doesn’t pull me out of the story — it pulls me IN. Soft is… invisible in comparison. Blah.

On a trip to Savannah last year, I toured a house built in the Regency (and visited by the Marquis de Lafayette, how cool) and was astonished to find runner carpets there that were (IIRC) a copy of runners made back then. Who knew? Definitely not me.

Ann Lethbridge
12 years ago

Well I too vote for Axminster. Indeed my parents always had Axminster stair runners when I was growing up. They never wore out.
I think it is touches like this that adds the feel of time and place to a historical and readers really like to learn something about the time.

J
J
12 years ago

I vote for the Axminster as well. Though I didn’t know all of the history, I knew they were high quality carpets, and it adds more to the setting that sawing soft.

J
J
12 years ago

I vote for the Axminster as well. Though I didn’t know all of the history, I knew they were high quality carpets, and it adds more to the setting that saying soft.

Amy Kathryn
Amy Kathryn
12 years ago

I don’t think being accurate is a fault. I was familiar with Axminster but if I do come across an unfamiliar word in a story it does not pull me out. In general, I will guess the meaning from context and then when I am finished reading look it up and learn something. I love new words and new ideas.

Caroline Storer
12 years ago

Axminster wins IMHO. Great blog btw, very interesting. Good luck with the release of your latest book. I love the cover – but the “face” of the heroine is bugging me. She looks familiar – the face of an actress maybe? Do you think so or am I going mad? Take care. Caroline x

jcp
jcp
12 years ago

Congralation and good luck on your new book!

Diane Gaston
12 years ago

Welcome, Julia!
We’re delighted to have you back, especially as a guest blogger.

Amanda can tell you that I was obsessed with carpets when we went on our infamous England trip. I asked every docent, “What do you call these carpets?” This was because I wanted to know such details for my books. So my characters could look down at Aubusson carpets, not just some anonymous rug. Now I have a new one to add to my carpet vocabulary.

Kit Donner
Kit Donner
12 years ago

Hi Julia,
I would say for most Regency readers, we’ve all read the words Axminster carpets, so it wouldn’t pull us out of the story. I know it wouldn’t for me. It was interesting to learn more details about the carpets and what they would have looked like. Thanks for your excellent research and I’ll look forward to reading “Waif.”

Louisa Cornell
12 years ago

Fascinating blog, Julia! And you know I LOVE your books. Can’t wait to read the newest and I am really excited about the 8 book series.

I am keeping this post about Axminster carpets. So much great information that I really had never heard before. I’d heard of Axminster carpets and have probably seen some on my forays to Great Britain, but the history is just amazing.

And yes, I vote for Axminster! Little details like that KEEP me in the story and are one of the reasons I read Regency set romance. I want to be immersed in the time period and things like Axminster carpet achieve that!

Maureen
12 years ago

I think it’s an interesting story and I definitely think the name should stay. It wouldn’t pull me out of the story since when I am reading historical stories I realize that there will be items mentioned that I am not familiar with.

Vanessa Kelly
12 years ago

Hi Julia,

Thanks for a fascinating blog post. I’m happy you decided to keep in Axminster. It certainly wouldn’t pull me out of the story.

Linda Cacaci
Linda Cacaci
12 years ago

Great blog!Good luck with your new book. It looks like a great read!

Jane Austen
12 years ago

I actually think that using the term “soft carpet” would throw me off much more than Axminster. Soft carpet just sounds odd and very modern to me.

My brother married a lovely Persian girl, who is actually giving birth to my first niece as we speak, and her family has gorgeous Persian carpets. In order to bring them over from Iran, they had to take pictures of the carpets in their house in Iran and prove that they did not sell them when they got to the US. I found this quite humorous.

I am so glad you posted since I had bought the third book in your Wellingford series, without realizing it was a series. So today I rectified that situation by purchasing the first book in the series. Good thing it’s not out of print for Kindles.

I like finding little family gems like that. My father’s family married into the famous Irish Emmet family and I just found out that their sons were named for their Irish ancestors, which I thought was a lovely touch. In my family we normally take last names and turn them into first names. We’ve found some interesting family connections based on first/last names. As a side note, if I ever have a son he will be Emmet Greyson. Might as well carry on the tradition.

Lynz Pickles
12 years ago

I never knew carpets could be so fascinating, Julia! Actually, now that I think about it, that’s a lie. I camped in a national park on Cape Breton a few years back, and spent a lot of time in the neighbouring town of Chéticamp. Part of the museum was dedicated to hooked rugs, and they were sold everywhere. I learned all about the culture that had grown around them and even got to try my hand at hooking part of one myself. (I didn’t do very well – it’s hard!)

Odd names don’t pull me out of the story unless the story’s not well-written in the first place. If it’s badly-written, I’ll be deperate for any excuse to put the book down. But in a good book, odd names make me want to finish up so I can find out what the place/thing is! I’ve often said that I knew a historical novel was fantastic when it made me get off my lazy butt to learn something new. Besides which, soft? Seriously? That’s so… psssh, soft. I can’t even muster up the energy to figure out how to describe how boring it is. It’s not worth my time. (Axminster, on the other hand, is worthy of not only my time, but an entire blog post and the time of anyone who reads said post.)

Oooh, ooh, is continuity series you’re working on Silk and Scandal? I can’t wait to read that series! I’ve been dying to read it for months now! And I’ll be dying to read it for months to come, still. *sigh* I wish release dates could come faster.

Julia Justiss
12 years ago

Yeah! I think it’s unanimous that “Axminster” should stay (and if TPTB question it again after they look over the edits, I’ll say that readers prefer the actual term.)

Definitely cool that you found “period” carpet runners, Barbara. In Maryland where I grew up, the colonials had very few actual hooked or knotted rugs, but used alot of what they called “floor cloths” which were painted canvas (Often tromp l’oeil fake-marble patterns that look really cheezy to the modern eye!)

How interesting, Ann, that you actually grew up with Axminsters. I’m jealous!

Caroline, I’m not sure who the “face” on the cover of WAIF is–tho she looks vaguely familiar to me, too. I’ll have to ask Ammanda once she’s off her crazy deadline/move. She’s the resident film expert and can probably ID the actress.

Kit, jcp, Louisa, and Linda,
thanks for the congrats on WAIF. I hope you’ll enjoy it!

Jane, since the Wellingford books have come out over such a long period of time, you don’t really need to read them first to last like a regular series. You can pick up any of the books in no particular order and not be lost. If you check the bookshelf page of my website, there’s a special extra page for the Wellingfords that lists all the books so far and which characters are featured in each. BTW, how funny that the family had to photo their own rugs! And the family names are so cool. I love Emmet Greyson!

Your camping trip to Cape Breton sounds wonderful, Lynz! I fear I’m not coordinated enough to hook rugs…but it would be fun to try. Yes, the series is Regency Silk and Scandal. All the authors can’t wait to read the books either, after talking about them and brainstorming about them and being so intimately acquainted with each story. (I’ve got a special page on my website for the series, too, if you want to check it out.) But not so long to wait now–2010 is just around the corner.

Yikes! And I’m so far behind on Greville’s story!

Thanks to everyone for their comments and the vote of confidence on Axminster.

librarypat
librarypat
12 years ago

I’m glad you stuck to your guns and had the soft carpet changed back to Axminster. Editors seem to be trying to “dumb down” everything they touch lately. Many of us read, especially historicals, for those little details that an author throws into their stories. If we are not familiar with it, many of us will look it up and expand our knowledge. That is one of the reasons I read historicals – those rich little details.
Good luck with all your projects. Have several of your books on both my keeper shelf and TBR pile.

Keira Soleore
12 years ago

Julia, welcome to the Riskies. It’s good to see you here.

Question Uno: You have an antique Chippendale chair? Cool!

A Regency continuity series for eight books sounds marvelous. Is it going to be mystery/suspense or a straight historical? Will there be a single HEA at the end of the 8th book? I’m really curious about the premise for the series. Great job on selling it, and good on Harlequin for buying it.

Good discussion on the carpets. Funny how a mistake set you off on a rich trove of research material. Perhaps one of your heroes/heroines in a future book could be a wool merchant. 🙂

Keira Soleore
12 years ago

To add to the chorus here, Axminster carpet isn’t product placement, but a valid historical detail. There’s a difference. Ahem, copyeditor.

Julia Justiss
12 years ago

I’m so pleased that many of you said if you encounter a detail in an historical with which you aren’t familiar, you look it up when you’re done (and doesn’t the internet make this so much easier! At least it gives you a place to start.) That’s exactly one of the things I love so much about historicals! I can’t begin to count the wonderful books which have inspired me to set off researching this or that.

Keira, I do have a set of (reproduction) Chippendale chairs, bought when dh and I were first married and living in Charleston, SC, which has a wonderful “antique row” down its old main street. Several of the stores send regular buying expeditions to England, where our chairs, 1860-vintage repros, were made. Alas, our antique-collecting slowed to a crawl once children arrived and now that they are off to college, has halted altogether.

Regency Silk & Scandal is a unique continuity on several fronts. First, though it was generated by editorial, they simply invited 6 authors to do the 8 books and then let us come up with the entire project–one of the reasons we’ve worked so closely. Each individual story stands alone and has a fully complete love story, but all the characters are related and there is an over-arching plot to which each successive book adds a bit and is resolved in the final book. Check my website for my details. All I can add is that it was fabulous fun to do and I can’t WAIT to read all the stories–including one by Gayle Wilson, lately famed for her contemp suspense but who used to write wonderful Regencies, tho she hasn’t had one out for years. You must check it out! The series begins in the UK in May and in NA in June 2010.

Janet Mullany
12 years ago

Coming in late, Julia, since I was at the New Jersey conference–welcome! Fascinating post, but the Regency was super big on fitted carpets, produced the same way they are today–strips cut and matched to size/pattern. It’s just not something we think of as being particularly historic. Yet in the book “Mrs. Hurst Dancing” it’s surprising how bare most of the floors were in their country house–must have been freezing in the winter and very loud!

Apparently the carpets in the salon at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton were indeed soft–sink up to your ankles soft–to provide that touch of voluptuousness Prinny liked so much.

Keira Soleore
12 years ago

Julia, what fun! I’m always surprised and pleased by the creativity shown by Harlequin and its authors.

I adored the concept on a smaller scale when Riskies Ammanda McCabe and Diane Gaston along with Deb Marlowe did it in their DIAMONDS anthology to be followed by individual books.

Now to see it expanded to eight books with six author! What fun! It must surely take a lot of choreography to get the details right.

Lusty Reader
12 years ago

i never would have guessed that ic ould get so caught up in the history of a type of carpet! you had me hooked from “Carpet envy” haha, that really got me. but i love humanizing history, the story of the Courtenay family is so fascinating, especially how they celebrated the 250th anniversary of Axminster carpets!

Like 80% of the romance novels I read are regencies (hence why i visit this blog) and I have seen Axminster carpets referred to…oh…about 5428934 times. But I never bothered to look up what they were. Thanks for sharing!

PS: love the sound of your new book too!

Diane Gaston
12 years ago

Lusty Reader, we’re delighted that you do visit us. We love all our Risky visitors.

Susan/DC
Susan/DC
12 years ago

Axminster is not just an adjective that tells us something about the rug, it also tells us something about the people who own the it. It doesn’t take much research or background reading to know that the owner of an Axminster is probably rich and upper class. Soft tells us nothing except that the carpet felt soft, so it is far less descriptive.

Virginia
12 years ago

What a great post Julis, are you sure you want send one of those carpets with the book. I want be greedy. I do love the carpets but I also love book awefuly well. I do love your books also. Thanks for sharing with us today.

lead[at]hotsheet[dot]com

Virginia
12 years ago

What a great post Julis, are you sure you want send one of those carpets with the book. I want be greedy. I do love the carpets but I also love book awefuly well. I do love your books also. Thanks for sharing with us today.

lead[at]hotsheet[dot]com

Alison
12 years ago

I’ve never heard the term ‘soft carpet’ before, so I’d have assumed that was the Regency term, rather than Axminster – though I do know that Axminster has a longer history than people think. I’d love the read the book – I’m going to put t on my list to look for.

Carolyn
12 years ago

Oh, I love this post! So much interesting stuff. Thanks for coming by, Julia!

Julia Justiss
12 years ago

Janet, I so envy you being at NJWC. I would love to go someday; they always have the most wonderful line-up of writers, editors, agents etc.

BTW, can you tell us more about the cut-and-fitted carpets? I admit, I see mostly bare floors in the historic homes I’ve visited and we Colonials certainly had few enough actual carpets. Were these woven, like tapestries, then cut and fit to shape? Or knotted? How were they produced and by whom–a blog post would be nice. (G)

Keira, the continuity did take alot of coordination. In our yahoo group circle, I think we logged about 1500 e-mails! But with some great organizers helping us (Louise Allen did family tree charts and Annie Burrows put together a weekly-updated by-character summary of postings) I think we ended up with a remarkably cohesive overall work for six authors working on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Readers get to decide next year; I just know I can’t wait to get my grubby hands on a complete set.

Lusty Reader, so glad you stopped by. As another fanatical reader of All Things Regency, I’m a frequent visitor here, too. It’s always a treat to find new and interesting Regency tidbits–and learn about the latest books out, too! I’m glad you like the “personalizing” of history. I’m always dismayed to encounter among students I teach the view that history is a boring, dry recitation of facts and dates. I always reply, “No, History is People Magazine!” (BTW, I hope you’ll find and enjoy WAIF)

Ah, Caroline, that the reticule had coins enough to provide Axminsters. We would both enjoy them! Thanks for stopping by to comment, and I hope you’ll enjoy WAIF.

Carolyn, it’s always a joy to be able to guest blog for the Riskies!