Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Tristan Quilt at the V & A

On our recent visit to London, one of our first stops was at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Established in 1852 and named for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who were strong supporters of it's founding, the museum is a facility that is both educational and cultural, and open to everyone. It is here, in the "Medieval and Renaissance Gallery" that I finally saw the "Tristan Quilt", one of the earliest surviving quilts showing stuffed, corded whitework (known as "Boutis" in France).

A Chihuly chandelier hangs in the grand lobby of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Medieval needlework was often a medium for storytelling. It told of wars and conquests, heros and warriors, love won and love lost, etc. Myths and legends were recorded for future generations through the nimble fingers of the artisans. Through the intricately depicted figures stitched into the Tristan Quilt, this classic Norman legend follows Tristan into battle and tells the tale of love and deception between Tristan and Isolde.

The quilt has been traced to an atelier in Sicily, Italy between 1360 - 1400. Because linen was widely available in Italy and France, and because of it's sturdy, long-lasting nature, it was used in many antique needlework pieces. In this quilt, the atelier used linen for both the top and backing of the quilt as well as linen thread for the stitching.

A close-up view shows the deterioration of the fabric, however, a great deal of restoration has taken place to preserve this item from further decline. Even so, some of the original stitches are still in place. I find it quite amazing and awe-inspring to think that someone, more then 600 years ago, living in a world completely foreign to our world today, likely working in conditions that we would consider quite harsh, skillfully placed those stitches with diligence and patience.

The quilt is displayed behind glass, so it was possible to get up very close and study the stitching in the images. A significant portion of the quilt has stitching that is deeply imbedded into the fabric and I would venture a guess that those would be original. A thrilling concept!

Below are several close-ups of the quilt.
The text surrounding the figures describes the scene.

Letters and channels were likely corded, while the larger areas were stuffed with cotton wadding.

Note the fine stitching around the King's head. Known as "point rapproche" (closely spaced, back and forth running stitch), it is still commonly used today in "boutis" and acts as a type of stipple stitch.

Close-up of the stitching. The brown thread outlining the flower and the vine is done in "point de piqure", the tiny backstitch that is one of the main stitches used in "boutis".

The Tristan Quilt on display at the V & A is only a portion of the whole quilt. A sister quilt hangs in the National Museum of the Bargello in Florence, Italy.

Not to be missed when at the museum, is a tea break  in the restaurant. The freshly baked scones and clotted cream keep me coming back!

Even the tile work on the floor of the restaurant provides inspiration for a future project.
I first heard about the "Tristan" quilt when visiting the "Maison du Boutis" in Calvisson, France.  On display at this museum is a reproduction of the "Tristan Quilt', made by Madame Francine Nicolle, founder and director of "Maison du Boutis", and the Association of "les Cordelles". After the quilt was completed, it was displayed next to the original at the V & A in London in December of 2009. When not on loan, the reproduction quilt now hangs at the "maison du Boutis" in Calvisson. Check out their website for further information about the process and the quilt.


  1. It must have been very exciting to see the quilt after only hearing about it beforehand. It is fantastic. I love the guys in the boat! I too find myself inspired to try to reproduce a part of it (not all of it!) some day.

    I will check out the other website. I wonder if there are any books with additional detailed photos?

  2. This is quite possibly the most incredible quilt I've ever seen. I had no idea that quilting went so far back, though I should not be surprised. How exciting that you were able to see it in person!

  3. Hi Monica. Seeing the Tristan quilt was little like reaching Santiago on the Road to Campostello. The goal of a pilgrimage. I have not seen any book that has very detailed photos of this quilt, however, one very likely exists. I looked at the V & A when I was there and didn't find anything, but because they had that special display in 2009 maybe something is available on-line. You have given me a good idea; I'll check it out too.

  4. Hi Needle and Nest. It was truly incredible to this quilt, perhaps even a little humbling to see that our stitched work can live so much longer then we can. Quilting has it's origins in Asia thousands of years ago. From there, it moved to India, then Europe. The first reference to quilting in the south of France appears in 1297. I doubt that any of those artisans thought that someone 700 years later would be studying their work. It's quite incredible.

  5. Hi. I found your blog by Googling "Tristan Quilt and restoration." Today I fulfilled a long-time dream of going to the Victoria and Albert Museum to see the Tristan Quilt -- and I was not disappointed. The quilt is beautiful, inspiring ... However, I want to ask what sounds like maybe a stupid question, but I can't get past thinking about this ... Did you think that much of the restoration of the Tristan Quilt was done on a sewing machine? The closer I looked, the more I was convinced of this. When I looked at it closely, I could not make the quilting stitch a running stitch; I could only make it a two-thread top/bottom thread stitch, looped in the middle, like a machine stitch. Dud you think this? Do you have any idea when the major restoration took place? I guess I should write the curator to ask this question -- but I am curious as to your thoughts.

  6. Hi Cathy. I'm so happy to hear from another "Tristan Groupie". Isn't it awe-inspiring to stand in front of this quilt, that was made in the 14th century? When I saw it in person in October, it was like reaching Santiago, the ultimate goal, after a very long road on the pilgrim's trail. I would think that the stitches made in the quilt during the restoration are hand made. Aside from a tiny running stitch, the basic stitch in boutis is called "point de piqure", which is a very tiny backstitch and really does look like it's machine made. At the "Maison du boutis" in Calvisson, southern France, I was able to view an antique quilt close up. This stitch had me completed baffled, because I too was sure it had been done on a machine, however, it is not. Since then I have learned to make this stitch, and it's really quite easy, just takes a lot of patience. Getting some details of the restoration from the curator sounds like a splendid idea. I would love to know how you make out.