According to an article by Lady Sarah Davies, the earliest quilted item found in France was a wool funeral pall quilted with Egyptian cotton. It dates back to the 5th century. This item probably was purchased from Middle Eastern traders.
Like other countries in Europe, the French later used the technique of quilting to make warm undergarments for women and warm clothing for men and women. Europeans also quilted clothes to provide some padding for soldiers and knights to wear underneath their armor.
A 12th century French poem mentions a bed covering made of two different kinds of silk quilted in a checkerboard pattern.
Medieval French quilters were influenced by trapunto, or stuffed quilts that originated in Sicily. Women of the French province of Provence took this technique and adapted it to make three distinctive styles of their own. These styles reached their height in the 17th century, when French quilting came into its heyday.
Today, when people refer to French quilts, they usually mean these lovely Provencal quilts. These quilts are whole cloth quilts, rather than block quilts. The true beauty of these quilts lies in the elaborate and fine hand-quilting and in the clever use of added padding to create intricate designs.
This is more important than the color or placement of the fabrics used. That is not to say that some weren't done in lovely colors. Toiles and Indiennes were some of the colorful fabrics used in French quilts.
The first type of Provencal technique to evolve was matelessage, which developed in the city of Marseilles. According to an article at Patches from the Past:
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.
Another type of whole quilt, The piqûre de Marseilles, also evolved in the same city. This quilt style had very refined quilting and motifs. Sometimes, it had extra stuffing to make parts of it stand out in relief.
The third type of French quilt, boutis, takes its name from the Provencal word for stuffing or from the wooden tool made to insert cording into a quilt. In boutis, stuffing or cording was inserted between stitched layers. This was often accomplished by separating threads from the fabric backing. After the stuffing or cording was in place, the the threads were pushed back into place. Boutis were usually made so that they are as beautifully quilted from the backing side as from the top side. They were reversible.
Boutis were generally white on white, and I personally think that is a gorgeous look. But some boutis were made of dyed cloth, as well. Indigo was one color that was used.
Boutis had elaborate motifs, which included lots of easily identifiable symbols. Some of the symbols used were religious ones. Others were hearts, flowers, animals, leaves, fruits, baskets, trees, etc. Sometimes, the quilt maker created a symbol that represented an aspect of her own daily life. Visit this link to see a design you might find in a booutis: http://www.boutis-quilt-creation.fr/img/img_boutis/003.jpg
While there, check out the site from the home page http://en.boutis-quilt-creation.fr
Some boutis were made in special workshops. Others were made in the home, and skills were passed down through the generations from mother to daughter and so forth. A traditional use for boutis was as wedding gifts or gifts given at the birth of a baby. Boutis techniques were also used to make baby caps and clothing.
As we mentioned, France is most known for the three styles of Provencal quilts. But, patchwork blocks and piecing played some part in the history of French quilting, as well. There are French quilts that date from the 19th century with grandmother's flower garden blocks. Also, many Amish and Mennonites came either from France or from the French speaking part of Switzerland. Some speculate that they were already creating block quilts that were forerunners to the ones we associate with American Amish settlements today. If so, these early Amish surely left their mark on French quilting.
Prior to the age of industrialization, quilts represented an investment of both time and valuable materials for French households. Thus, they were highly prized.
When industrialization came along, factories started turning out bed coverings in large quantities. These new coverings were inexpensive and plentiful. People who made and sold old-fashioned, hand-quilted Provencal quilts could not compete with factory items. Also, many women could no longer justify spending hours and hours hand-quilting traditional elaborate French motifs for their own households. So, French women had little incentive to keep up their age-old quilting skills. By the turn of the twentieth century, it seemed that traditional French quilting was on its way to being a lost art.
Happily -- just as in America -- France has seen a resurgence of interest in quilting in the past two or three decades. Some French quilters have turned back to the traditions of their past. They are now preserving the skills that almost died out. Visit this link to see a woman of today making a boutis using today's methods: http://www.boutis.oxatis.co. Hit the "stages boutis" button to see the image. If you're interested in trying boutis yourself, look around the site for materials and instructions.
Also, any authentic Provencal quilts from before the turn of the twentieth century are greatly valued by collectors. Similarly, there is a market for reproduction quilts. Admittedly, some French-style reproduction quilts are mass made. These evoke the look of Provencal quilts, but don't feature the intricate hand-stitching that is the true hallmark of a French quilt. In today's economy, though, the mass-made quilts do provide an affordable way for someone to obtain an approximation of the French look.
Today, while some French quilters are trying to preserve their own quilting heritage, there is no doubt that many French quilters have taken to quilting styles, materials, and techniques from the U.S. Regarding today's quilting scene in France, it's hard to separate the American influence from the French heritage. Le Rouvray is a famous quilt shop in Paris that helped popularize American style quilting.
If you would love to view some beautiful quilts, as well as learn more about French quilting, visit the following sites:
http://www.historyofquilts.com/french_quilt_history.html (See photos illustraing each of the three Provencal styles)
http://en.boutis-quilt-creation.fr (This is a beautiful site. Be sure to take a look at her page about boutis, along with illustrations. Click on illustrations to see a larger, more detailed image of a boutis. Also, you might enjoy the page of photos from the area where boutis originated.)
http://www.lerouvray.com (The famous American style quilt shop on the Seine River in Paris.)
Today's assignment -- Visit at least one of the links above. If you enjoy quilting books, find out if your local library has a book about French quilts.