Saturday, February 5, 2011

This Mystery Came Wrapped in Velvet

by Ellen Byerrum

Velvet. No other fabric is as luxurious, or compels you to touch it and sink your fingers into its deep soft nap, the way velvet does. Velvet is the fabric of royalty, of wealth, of Christmas dresses, of evening gowns, of tufted sofas, and even of theater curtains. Velvet lines jewelry boxes, earring cards, and also coffins.

The fabric is a major focus of my latest mystery, Shot Through Velvet, where the action begins in a velvet factory on its very last day of operation.  The term “shot through velvet” is also a type of velvet in which two colors are woven into the fabric, say, blue and silver. The fabric’s hue changes depending on how the light hits the material; it’s blue one way and then silver the other. It reminds me of the way that the facts, the story, or even the characters can change, depending on how you look at them.

It wasn’t part of the plan to focus on velvet in one of my crime of fashion mysteries, but like many things, it came about unexpectedly when I heard a tantalizing tidbit.

About four years ago, while I was a reporter for a trade press in Washington, D.C., a friend casually mentioned that the last velvet factory in Virginia would be closing in a matter of weeks. Stop the presses! If there was any chance at all, I knew I had to visit. I didn’t even know what I would do with the information, I simply had to follow up. I called the man in charge and told him I would use the story someday, somehow, perhaps in an article, perhaps a blog post. Or I might write about a murder in a velvet factory. Highly fictionalized, of course. He remarked that there would be lots of ways for someone to die in a velvet factory. Who could pass up that opportunity? Certainly not I.

So I took time off from work, traveled to a small town in southern Virginia, and toured the factory in its waning days. I took photographs and interviewed the official. Among the things that hit me was how much hands-on work is required to make that luxurious fabric. At one time the factory employed over a hundred workers who wove and dyed and finished the velvet. Not only did velvet factory workers lose their jobs, other ancillary industries would also suffer, including the ones that manufactured dyes and 
supplied fibers and yarns.  

As I looked at hundreds of bolts of the shimmering fabric in rainbows of colors, the idea for a mystery took up residence in the old thought closet. As the factory official said, a writer could devise many ways for someone to die there. There were humming machines with rows of pointed teeth to grab the velvet and sharp blades to shear the woven fabric. And then I saw the dye vats, giant tubs in which huge spools of velvet are dipped and dyed. So what did I choose? Here are the first lines of the book.

The body was blue.
    Not merely wearing blue, he was blue—and not the blue pallor of death. He was sapphire from head to toe, a deep shade of mood indigo.

    Of course when touring the velvet factory, I had another book to finish. That always seems to happen. Another idea takes hold before you’re finished with the previous one. But that’s the thing about ideas; they have to get in line, jump into the idea pot, and simmer on the back burner for however long it takes. And it can take a long, long time.

While the velvet mystery was cooking, I started wondering: How do people in a small town react when their jobs go away, and there is no other industry, except for service jobs? How do they cope? The dying velvet factory was just one of thousands of industries in danger. My heroine Lacey Smithsonian’s own newspaper profession is in danger, which provided a point of connection. All these questions go into writing the book, perhaps not even consciously. They form threads that work their way into a story, refined in a plot. From velvet to mystery, to a brand-new book.

I learn something new from every book. Now every time I see velvet, I have a deeper appreciation for it.

Thank you, Poe’s Deadly Daughters, for welcoming me to your blog today.

Ellen Byerrum is the author of the Crimes of Fashion Mysteries featuring Lacey Smithsonian. Two of her books have been made into TV movies. She lives in the Washington, DC, area. Learn more about Ellen and her books at


Sheila Connolly said...

This sounds lovely (love the blue body!). For years I lived in Swarthmore, where the highway entrance to town is still dominated by the remains, including a massive smokestack, of the Victorian Plush Mills, which used to make upholsterey fabric, powered by the stream alongside.

Whenever I think of velvet, I visualize Hans Holbein's portrait of Thomas More, where the velvet looks good enough to eat.

Did you come home with a lot of fabric?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila took the question out of my mouth: did you get samples?

Mason Canyon said...

I'm a big fan of Lacey Smithsonian and have just started reading SHOT THROUGH VELVET. I've always enjoyed how Lacey seemed so real, now I understand why - the research you do.

Thoughts in Progress

Ellen Byerrum said...

I left the factory with a lot of thoughts and ideas, but alas, no velvet. I thought about asking, but something stopped me. I wish I had now. And I think it was earmarked for customers.

On the other hand, I have added some lovely velvet jackets to my collection, and now every time I see it, I realize how much work and heart and soul went into making it.

Dru said...

Love the opening sentence. Looking forward to reading SHOT THROUGH VELVET.

Julia Buckley said...

How interesting--and what a true writer you are to pursue all those interesting leads! You're an inspiration to us all with your research. Great title and great cover!

Anonymous said...

Great article, Ellen. As an almost life-long velvetaholic, I look forward to reading SHOT THROUGH VELVET.

Rosemary Stevens

Beth said...

I just finished reading Shot through velvet. I enjoyed it very much. The info on the velvet factory is interesting, but what I mainly love is the way you make the characters so interesting.


Cindy Sample said...

I've loved all of your Lacey books since "Killer Hair" first appeared, although I've noticed that whenever I start reading one, I start itching for a shopping spree.

I love the premise of this book. You are the queen of great first lines. Thanks for giving us this series.