Patches From the Past
Scraps of Fabric, Sewing & Quilting History

Quilting in France: The French Traditions

~ a history of French quilting including Marseilles & boutis quilts ~

French quilted needleworks are no recent discovery, they have almost always existed. They consist of a layer of cotton, wool or silk batting covered on both sides with layers of plain or printed fabric, held together by a quilting representing specific motifs. Over the centuries, France developed its own textile traditions that can somehow be related to quilting.

In the French southern region called Provence, the first whole-cloth quilts appeared in the middle of the 17th century. This kind of needlework was already known in Sicily in the 13th and 14th centuries. The cottons used to make boutis came from Egypt, China or India. Three techniques followed one another: the " matelassage " (a certain kind of whole-cloth quilt), the " piqûre de Marseilles " and the " boutis ". (These terms are much debated; that is why a quilt made with the piqûre de Marseilles technique is sometimes referred to as piqué marseillais, and very often there is a confusion between boutis and trapunto - see below).

1. The matelassage:

marseillais shown with permission from La Maison du Boutis

This kind of needlework was practiced in Marseilles. The backing was a very simple, sometimes even coarse fabric stretched on a large wooden frame. The batting in carded cotton or silk was spread out and covered with a fine fabric: a richly decorated indienne (a kind of high-quality printed calico), silk sateen, plain or embroidered linen or cotton cloth. The quilting pattern was drawn on the top fabric, and the three layers were sewn together with a running stitch. The demand for this kind of luxurious, high-quality whole-cloth quilts was so great that they were successfully exported in England, Spain, Italy, Germany and Holland.

2. The piqûre de Marseilles:

marseillais shown with permission from La Maison du Boutis

A specialty from Marseilles, this very refined needlework was richly quilted with various intricate motifs, some of them stuffed with additional batting to make them stand out in relief. Two plain fabrics were stretched on the loom: a fine cotton or silk fabric on top, and the same or a more loosely-woven fabric for the backing. During the first half of the 18th century, backstitch was used to quilt the piqués de Marseilles. Then it was replaced by an easier and faster running stitch. The stuffing was made with cord stuffed with a special needle on the back of the quilt between the stitches. When you look at such a quilt with the light shining through, you discover its subtle and refined beauty, and the craftsmanship of the quilter. This very painstaking and time-consuming work was finally simplified and evolved towards a faster technique with a bulkier stuffing.

3. The boutis:

boutis shown with permission from La Maison du Boutis

During the 19th century, the quilting motifs became larger, and the stuffing was made with cord and thin strips of cotton batting. The technique was consequently simplified, and it took less time to complete such a piece of needlework, sometimes also called Marseilles embroidery. Boutis is a Provencal word meaning " stuffing ". A special needle, also called boutis and made out of boxwood, was necessary to delicately stuff the work. The motifs in a boutis are bulkier, and loaded with symbols: animals, flowers, fruits, hearts, but also cornucopia, oak leaves, various crosses, religious symbols. The Provencal girls also chose naive motifs inspired from their personal lives.

The 18th and 19th century boutis were made in plain cloth - cotton or silk. They were generally white, but indigo, red, bronze or golden yellow were sometimes used. Boutis are always reversible: the back is as beautiful as the top, unlike trapunto, which is backed with a very loosely-woven cloth, making the quilt not reversible. The boutis technique was used to make different kinds of work like quilts, petticoats, layette, bonnets, men's vests, and the famous " petasson ", a small boutis used to wrap and hold the babies in the arms. These pieces were very precious and thus not intended to be used every day. They were rather reserved for weddings, births or baptisms. The bride trousseau was always composed of various boutis pieces including one or several wedding counterpanes (decorative stitched bed coverings) called the " vane ". These were usually in cotton and embroidered with symbolic motifs. Also the lower part of the wedding petticoat in white cotton or silk was made in boutis. The bride wore this petticoat under her wedding gown. The gown's colors may seem quite unusual for us today: green (for hope) or red.

boutis shown with permission from La Maison du Boutis

The industrialization along with the decreasing textile production in Provence resulted in the decline of the boutis techniques, and all this work was abandoned around the beginning of the 20th century. Yet, a kind of renewed interest for those Provencal traditions emerged some 15 or 20 years ago, and the will to make this artistic needlework alive again through classes, exhibitions and books is clearly established. The boutis was a decorative art originated from Sicily in the Middle Ages. Provencal women have changed it into a popular art, often looked on as a typically Provencal artistic heirloom. Today, it is very fashionable to make a boutis.

The boutis and piqués marseillais photographed in this article come from La Maison du Boutis in Calvisson, France, and the pictures are published courtesy of La Maison du Boutis.

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© 2005 Isabelle Etienne-Bugnot (Do not reproduce this article without permission from the author.)

Internet Links:

Quilts of Provence:
The Art
and Craft
of French Quiltmaking
find this book at Amazon.com by Kathryn Berenson

www.la-maison-du-boutis.com: the "boutis house", a site dedicated to the boutis in Provence, France. News, technique, books, exhibitions, etc. Information about the Museum in Calvisson. Go here for information in English.

www.francepatchwork.com: The official website of the France Patchwork guild, which is also the biggest French site dedicated to quilting (with over 20,000 connections per month). Go here for information in English.

www.patchwork-europe.com: the site for the Carrefour Européen du Patchwork in Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, France. News and many photos of the winning quilts. Go here for information in English.

Boutis & Creation Find information about boutis and order books on this lovely art form.

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