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At the November 2010 monthly meeting, Gill Rebelo gave a presentation about boutis, one of the lesser known techniques of quilting that is undergoing a renaissance in popularity today. Gill’s report:
Derived from and similar to Italian trapunto, boutis is a French method which developed in the 13-14th centuries near Marseille, thus its other name “Marseille work.”
Trapunto is a process of quilting with wadding or batting included, cutting into the back of the work to add extra filler and then closing the cuts. The result is what we would consider a proper wholecloth or appliqué quilt with extra stuffing in some places.
Boutis (pronounced boo-tee’), however, is made by stitching two layers of fabric together without filler. Lines of stitching are usually kept close together and running roughly parallel. After all the stitching is completed, the channels of space between lines of stitching are filled with cotton or wool roving or yarn. No cuts need to be made if a needle that is thick enough to carry the yarn can be passed through the threads of the cloth. Roving is trimmed about 1/2 inch away from the cloth and the ends are pushed in with a little stick like a toothpick. The “wound” created by the needle then heal themselves, and the excess roving inserted allows for some shrinkage.
Boutis is a Provençal word which means “stuffing.” A boutis is the name used in France for a wholecloth stuffed quilt. The earliest stuffed wholecloth quilts made in Europe are three Sicilian quilts, thought to date from the late 14th century, which were made as wedding quilts, two of which are now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. They depicted the love story of Tristan and Isolde.
The technique emerged again, in the 17th century, in Provence in southern France, as Matelassage quilts. These were composed of two layers of fabric, the bottom one often coarse and the top being a fine fabric such as silk, sateen, linen or a fine cotton, sandwiched together with a stuffing of carded cotton or silk in between. These were quilted with running stitches to give a raised surface between the stitches but did not contain any cording or stuffing. When washed the cotton shrank to create a puckered three-dimensional look.
Pigure de Marseilles, which became popular in the 18th century, was a more refined version of this. Again, fine fabric was used for the top and a coarser one for the bottom, without a layer of batting, and these two fabrics were stretched on a loom. The quilt pattern was drawn on top and the outlines were stitched with either running stitch or backstitch, which creates a stronger outline. Parallel rows of running or backstitch were worked to create narrow channels as a background to the design motifs which were stuffed by drawing a fine cord or tightly rolled fabric through the narrow channels, using a special blunt-nosed boxwood needle which is also known as a boutis. This was inserted from the back of the quilt, between the stitching lines, without making any cuts in the fabric.
In the 19th century, boutis as we know them today started to reappear as a renaissance of the earlier techniques. These quilts were more refined, made with a fine cotton, linen or silk used for both the back and the front of the quilt. These quilts were reversible, unlike traditional trapunto work which revealed cuts made in the backing and used to insert stuffing.
In the 18th and 19th centuries the boutis were usually made in plain white fabric but occasionally strong colours such as yellow, red, indigo and bronze were used.
Embroidered embellishment motifs, sometimes called Marseilles embroidery, often used to enhance boutis became larger. The varied designs included flowers, hearts, oak leaves, fruit and berries, cornucopia, and fertility and religious symbols such as crosses. Embroiderers also used naïve symbols inspired by events in their own lives.
Traditionally, items made with boutis methods included special baby blankets called “petasson” for newborns, baby’s christening caps and layettes, counterpanes and quilts, women’s petticoats and men’s waistcoats. Because boutis requires fine workmanship, these articles were intended for special occasions such as births, baptisms and weddings. A bride often wore a boutis petticoat under her wedding gown, often in traditional green or red, and boutis items were included in her trousseau.
There was much demand for boutis items from the wealthy in England, Holland, Germany and Spain. Boutis work fell out of fashion in Provence in the early 20th century. Recent revived interest in handwork has brought it to life again. There are now many books and classes teaching the method.
Links to more information about boutis include: