Monday, March 28, 2011

Marseille, France, 1700s, and white corded quilting

In a recent post, Nancy told us that American dressmakers often looked to France for inspiration, but as the 19th century wore on, they became increasingly independent in their design ideas. I recently attended a lecture that made me aware of just how far-reaching the French fashion industry has been over the centuries.

Godey's Ladies books might have brought
French fashion to America in the 19th
century, but the French were "all about fashion" long before that!

The lecture I attended was sponsored by the International Quilt Study Center and Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska, in conjunction with their current exhibition titled Marseille: White Corded Quilting, which features phenomenal works from the collection of Kathryn Berenson and others. See more of the exhibition at

Because of my love of all things French ... and my passionate interest in quilting traditions ... Berenson's books pictured here are two favorite reads.
When I look at the engraving above of the woman bent over the quilting frame in an atelier in France, I can't help but wonder what her life was like. She spent hours a day creating phenomenal quilted clothing. What would she think if she could see us today as we stand in open-mouthed wonder at her exquisite handiwork?

Among the more jaw-dropping things I learned from speaker Frederique Sevet-Collier at the lecture that day was that, by 1680, the women working in
the textile ateliers of Marseille, France, were producing 40-50,000 pieces of whitework a year. Tens of thousands.

What's corded whitework? Draw a design on a piece of white cloth, then layer that with a backing fabric and stitch along the design. Finally, separate the weave on the back layer to introduce a length of white cording into the channel created by the stitching. How many hours do you suppose it took to create even a small piece? Surely hundreds of hours. Other more intricate pieces in this exhibition would have required thousands of hours.

While the Marseilles whitework industry was nearly eliminated by the Plague, quilted clothing remained in vogue for centuries. I am still amazed by the work that went in to making beautiful petticoats like this one in my personal collection. Petticoat ... as in ... undergarment rarely seen by anyone but the wearer. Amazing ... and somewhat simplistic compared to the pieces on display at the museum. Still, as I run my hand over the feathers quilted into the hem, I imagine "her" ... and I'm inspired to attempt to tell her story.
Of course "she" lives on the Great Plains in the 19th century, not at Louis XIV's court. She's a newcomer to fashion compared to the ladies who wore the creations from Marseilles. Still....I wonder....what if one of those women's creations traveled to the New World in a trunk aboard a ship .... what if ....


  1. Fascinating article! Since French is my second language and I spent many years immersed in French culture and literature, I too have a love for anything French. Thank you for this insightful look into the white corded quilting process.

  2. So interesting! I, too, love all things French; I studied French for four years in high school, but I am afraid after 30 years my skills are a bit rusty! But I am committed to trying once more to become fluent. I am plowing through a couple of workbooks to improve my grammar and planning a trip to France in a three years, when my 15yo (studying French in hs) is a senior. I also love quilting, and totally apppreciate the time and skill required to create pieces like the ones you pictured. Thank you so much for sharing what you learned!

  3. Bonjour! Vous aimez la France aussi! C'est merveilleus de faire votre connaissance. Et maintenant ... back to English. Thrilled to hear from you both, though, and glad you enjoyed the post. You make me wish my novel A Garden in Paris were still in print. Maybe someday it will be back! In the meantime ... Pam ... I wanted you to know that you will probably be thrilled by how quickly your French comes back to you when you visit again. I took my kids in 2001 and it had been years ... but my language returned. I was amazed. Vive la France!

  4. Mary ... how do you feed your love of French culture and literature? Do you still practice French? I'm trying to get up courage to visit a conversation group in my home town ...

  5. Hi Stephanie:

    At the rate you are progressing with these fabric posts will you have one on the Jacquard loom in the future? I understand it used punch cards like a computer and that it put a lot of people out of work.

    BTW: I try to keep up with my Italian by going to the Transparent Language site every day. I go to the Italian blog, in French it is:

    and I always check the word of the day, in French it is:

    I like to do this because instead of losing ground with my Italian, I’m progressing a little each day. It’s free.

    Also, by reading these posts, by the time the book comes out, (like Masquerade) I feel like it is an old friend. I know what ‘Five Points’ looks like.

    Keep up the good work!


  6. Jacquard loom ... fascinating, but not me. I'm all about quilts and that's honestly all I know about when it comes to historical bedcoverings. But now that you brought it up .... I did buy a book about early American weaving and dying at the Hermitage last time I was there. Io parlo italiano ... un poco. With phrase book in hand :-). But it's a gorgeous language. I studied it for a year when I was a voice major ... and my Italian professor needled me mercilessly for my French accent. Sigh. Happy memories, though ...

  7. The Abbaye St. Victor is very beautiful and a nice place to check out after you have seen other parts of Marseille. If you are only there for one day, I would say there are other more important sites to see. However, if you have a bit more time, it is a lovely place to check out full of history