The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
Going Global: A Quilt Scout Series Examining Quilts Not Made in America
In 2007, I was not yet a quilter. My interest was beginning to show itself, however, and the new owners of my mother’s company were circling. The way they figured, if the Fons daughter started quilting it could be good for the brand they had recently purchased. I was thus tempted with complimentary notions, an appearance on the PBS show, and a free trip to France. Well, kind of.
For more about French quilts, I strongly encourage you to get this book by Kathryn Berenson. It’s really, really good.My mother, the Francophile, floated the idea at some point that it would be cool to take a bunch of quilters on a tour of Provence. Provence is a region in France with a rich heritage of wine, French people, and needleart, much of which includes remarkably quilted textiles.
The blessing was given, the advertisement ran. In a matter of days, the tour bus was sold out and the logistics of the summertime trip were worked out. Someone suggested that I go on the tour, too, sort of as an assistant to my mom. Whether or not the offer was strategic is really not so important, of course; what’s important is that I was fortunate to be able to take a trip to such an historic region and learn, firsthand, about the textile gorgeousness of Provence and hang out with my mom. Sure, I said. Where do I sign?
I learned a lot on the trip, including how/why so much textile gorgeousness evolved in Provence. It’s due largely to geography. The Mediterranean Sea forms the region’s southern border, creating a natural, well-protected port. As a result, and for literal centuries, now, Provence has been a hub for commerce and the happy receiver of huge volumes of imported goods, including fabric. As far back as the 13th century (!) Provence welcomed silk from East India, cottons from Africa, and so on. When fabric began to be produced in the area, specifically Marseilles, Provence grew to be known as a textile manufacturing hub, as well. In short, Provence’s relationship to fabric has been a close one for a very long time.
People are not so different from century to century. There were those folks in the 1700s, for example, who behaved just as we do when we spy a fabulous length of fabric: We are seized with the desire to make it into a quilt.
Until the Industrial Revolution, fabric was not abundant enough to be snipped into pieces for patchwork, so the quilts of Provence (like pretty much everywhere else at the time) were largely wholecloth, sometimes plain/solid, sometimes chintz; toiles showed up a little later.
Kathryn Berenson appeared on “Martha Stewart Living” many years ago; the video is still online.The nature of the wholecloth quilt is where the exquisite quilting comes in. Wholecloth quilts, then as now, provide a quiltmaker a wide expanse of fabric into which she can stitch her designs. And in Provence, those designs happen to be exceptionally beautiful and executed so brilliantly, yards and yards of corded and tufted magnificence.
Circles, curves, leaves, birds, flower motifs—if it’s pretty, it was probably in a “Marseilles cloth” quilt. The designs quilted by Provencal quilters—almost all of whom were women working in ateliers—looked different from the work of their Italian neighbors, and distinctive in the look of their stuffing and cording. There was also the broderie, or embroidery look. Getting this embroidery right was a job for professional needleworkers and flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries.
This quilted skirt (ca. 1700-1750) is a phenomenal example of the sorts of motifs and the level of craftsmanship shown in Provencal work. Image: Wikipedia.The intricate quilting style, called “embroidery from within” found in these antique quilts and clothing is so exceptional, so perfectly wrought, it confounds: How did she work out where to stitch so that one line of cloth would be raised and another would sink down just so? How did she not screw up the borders? I haven’t the faintest idea. Neither did kings and aristocrats know how the ladies made it happen, but they didn’t care: They ordered the coverlets and the clothes they made, anyway.
And so it went for a long time, this lively textile commerce environment in France. These days, though the volume of wholecloth quilt exports has dropped dramatically, Provence is still a place to see quilt history in France. On the tours with my mom and a busload of quilters (the trip occurred every year for three years) we visited the Souleiado textile factory, shopped for fabric in towns like Aix-en-Provence and Marseilles, of course, and certainly talked about quilts the whole time over coq au vain and table wine that rivaled a $30 bottle of red here in the States.
Ah, France. You could do worse! Image: Wikipedia.The trips to France were not ultimately the reason why I started quilting; my jump into all this was more the result of a quarter-life crisis. But going to experience what quilts mean in France laid a certain foundation that I can now identify. Understanding that quiltmaking is way, way older than me and way, way older than the current quilt industry is an important piece of knowledge. It keeps me humble and keeps me researching quilt traditions and keeps me on the lookout for a great—but affordable!—bottle of red.