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

Quilting in France: A Revival of Interest

~ French quilting today: guilds, exhibitions & enthusiastic quilters ~

click to see full quilt by Isabelle Etienne-Bugnot

Quilting (that we call patchwork) has certainly always existed in France. It has been experimenting a renewal of interest during the past two or three decades, just like in the United States. Today, the influence of North-American history and techniques cannot be denied, although there is a French background to quilting. In the past centuries, Provençal women used to make boutis and piqué de Marseilles, which might somehow be considered as the French version of the three-layer work that American women call quilt.

The American Influence

Let's go back to the beginning of the 1970's. The first quilting store, the famous Rouvray, located just beside the Seine river and Notre Dame of Paris, has just opened, and soon Parisian women discovered the art of quilting. At the same time, in 1972, a large exhibition of quilts held at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (Museum of Decorative Arts) in Paris allowed French people to really discover quilting. The first quilting classes were taught in Le Rouvray by an American lady, Sophie Campbell, who has done much for the development of quilting in France.

quilt by Isabelle Etienne-Bugnot

In 1984, a few voluntary and passionate women decided to found the France Patchwork guild, a non-profit association entirely managed by volunteers. A year later, the first issue of the guild magazine " Les Nouvelles du Patchwork " was published. Both the association and the magazine federate the French quilters, whose number keeps growing.

In 1987, a second large exhibition presenting French quilts from traditional to contemporary style was another booster to quilting revival in our country. One should be aware that at the end of the 1980's, it was quite difficult to quilt as this activity was not widely-known yet. There were very few quilting stores, fabrics and books. Except for those who had the opportunity to go to the United States, it was not easy to get the " tools " necessary for quilting.

Generally speaking, since the 1990's, there has been a renewed interest in all kinds of creative activities, among which is quilting. It is a fast-expanding business with more and more specialized stores, classes, notions and books available, exhibitions, contests and local guilds. The development of the Internet has also allowed many French quilters to have access to quilting information from all over the world, and especially from North America. Today, the French guild France Patchwork has about 15,000 members, and there are so many more that quilt on their own. The guild magazine, "Les Nouvelles du patchwork", has become a very professional 116-page quarterly magazine, entirely managed by volunteers just like the guild itself. It features among others: the quilting life in France, the French and international exhibitions and contests, articles about quilt history, quilters' interviews, numerous patterns, etc., without forgetting the "Artextures" chapter, which is the fiber art feature.

quilt by Isabelle Etienne-Bugnot

All over the country, various exhibitions are organized to promote quilting. The Carrefour Européen du Patchwork has become the biggest and the most famous exhibition in France. Held every September during four days in Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, in the Alsace region, the Carrefour is the European quilting's shop window. In 2004, for its 10th anniversary edition, it set an attendance record, with 17,000 visitors coming from all over the world, 800 quilts from the five continents and over one hundred commercial booths. In June 2006, Lyon will welcome for the second time the 10th edition of the Quilts, Inc. sponsored exhibition : Patchwork and Quilt Expo. There are also smaller exhibitions like the Eurocrazyquilt Festival held every Fall in La Bourboule in the central region of France. And so many others that cannot be mentioned here, but which all contribute to promote quilting and quilters.

French quilters are interested in all kinds of quilting, but mostly do piecing and appliqué. Traditional and contemporary styles are both appreciated, even fiber art has gained followers. There are all kinds of quilters : the traditional lovers who buy reproduction fabrics, choose traditional patterns and piece and quilt their work entirely by hand; the quilters who want to save time by using machine techniques - quick cutting techniques with rotary cutters and rules are very much used now. Appliqué is also much practiced. The Baltimore style has always been in favor with the French quilters, although the more contemporary quilters do not hesitate to use innovative techniques for appliqué. Handquilting is still very often practiced, but more and more contemporary quilters work with their sewing machines, using free-motion techniques that " sculpt " the surface of the quilt. Every new technique is worth being studied, as many quilters are always in search for new ideas.

quilt by Isabelle Etienne-Bugnot

The numerous guilds are the perfect places for beginners to learn the basics of quilting : mastering the traditional techniques, the handling of a sewing machine, the use of color, the finishing tips, etc. Classes are often based on American books that introduce new techniques : although there are a few French creations, most of the techniques, patterns as well as fabrics come from North America. A few books are being translated into French, making them accessible to all quilters.

The influence of American quilting is still very strong in France, although one can feel the emergence of a new generation of French artists who are going to imprint their own style in the quilting scene of our country. Yet, the American quilting tradition and history have and will always have a great impact on French quilters, who will certainly never stop bringing the past back to life through their traditional American-connected quilting.

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

Internet Links:

Hexagon Quilt by Isabelle Etienne-Bugnot: See a full version and a close up of Isabelle's hexagon quilt along with information on how it was made.

Landscape Quilts by Nancy Zieman, Natalie Sewell find this book at Amazon.com Isabelle's landscape quilt was inspired by this book.

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.

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

Another French quilting publication is Quiltmania: The Magazine of Patchwork.

Bilbiofil / la bibliothèque des métiers. A French publishing house for needlework topics including boutis and hardanger.

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