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Boutis: Traditional French Needlework

"Piqûre de Marseilles" or "Boutis" is a traditional French hand stitched and corded needlework technique, which uses embroidery stitches to create intricate channels that will later be stuffed with yarn, thereby creating a raised design with three layers. It's origins, and it's name, can be traced to the port of Marseilles in southern France to the 15th century. Traditional boutis was a technique invented to embellish otherwise plain white cotton with intricately patterned channels that would later be stuffed with a plump white yarn to give it relief. The resulting corded whitework created an elegant, embossed textile that was much sought after. Not only was it aesthetically appealing, but it also provided warmth and absorbency, so could be used for bed coverings, toilette linens (like towels), clothing items, home decor, etc.

The first two photos below are from the collection of Mme. Monique Alphand, a well known French expert and collector of antique textiles from Marseilles and Provence.

Because of its absorbency and warmth, boutis was often used in making items for baby's layette. (see above)


Also, from the same collection, a small section of a wedding quilt from the early 19th century.

For a variety of reasons, including imposed prohibitions on some textiles, the plague, and the fact that it was quite labour intensive, its popularity slowly declined over the years. However, the 21st century has seen a revival of boutis throughout France. Contemporary French needleworkers who have learned the skill from previous generations of mothers and grandmothers have once again embraced the technique and are energetically reviving its popularity among todays needlework enthusiasts. Thanks to the active promotion of local artisans and the 31 boutis associations throughout France, not only is boutis regaining its popularity in France, it also has a growing following in other countries.

In 2019 France Boutis, along with the large community of boutis associations throughout France, jointly published an official document for the Ministry of Culture which defines boutis. It presents the results of an exhaustive  study of the history and the technique of this greatly valued heritage. A small excerpt from the document describes boutis as, “… a technique of embellishing fabric, of giving it relief. Boutis is the only embroidery that looks as complete on the right side as it is on the reverse side. Boutis uses a simple technique but requires excellence.” 

What defines boutis? 

Boutis is a play of light and shadow created by inserting yarn into pre-stitched motifs and channels, creating a raised pattern. Two layers of fabric, traditionally a white cotton batiste, are hand stitched together into narrow channels (about 1/8 inch apart) or small motifs outlining the design. Although white cotton batiste is used most often, other colours, such as the saffron batiste below, are also used from time to time. In the early workshops of Marseilles, where boutis has it's origins, a tiny backstitch known as "la piqûre de Marseille" (the stitch of Marseilles) was the original stitch and the only stitch used for boutis.  Much later in it's history, after the workshops in Marseilles closed, the running stitch, "point avant", gained popularity because of it's efficiency.  Today Boutis is again taught with the tiny backstitch, just as the early ateliers did. Regardless of which stitch is used, they must be tiny, consistent in length and of equal quality on the right side and the reverse side.

In the sample above I have used both stitches. Stitching two layers of cotton batiste together, the running stitch outlines the centre floral medallion, while the shorter lines surrounding the medallion have been stitched with the backstitch. Before the work is corded it is flat and lifeless. (The blue marking lines will wash out.)
 

After the stitching is completed, cotton yarn is individually threaded into each channel between the two layers of fabric from the reverse side. It is the cording that gives definition to the patterns and brings life to the design. The play of light and shadow on the motif changes what appears to be flat whitework to a luminous embossed design.

After the cording is completed, the piece is immersed in water and squared up.

Boutis is completely reversible and both sides should be of equal quality. There is no visible right or wrong side of the work. (See below)

Showing the reverse side of the floral medallion.

Here is another version of the same floral medallion on white showing the right side which has been stitched with piqûre de Marseilles (the tiny backstitch).

Another attribute of boutis is its luminosity. When held up to the light boutis will let the light pass through between the corded channels and in this way illuminate the design.

Above, two boutis floral medallions have been placed into a framework of quilting. Held up against the light, the luminosity of boutis can shine.

The design of boutis is also crucial to what defines it. Unlike trapunto, which can be used to add dimension to an isolated motif, boutis requires that the central motif be surrounded by a network of channels that support the design and allow it to stand alone as its own work. There should be no puckering or pleats in the finished piece.

In this little butterfly pouch, the center motif has been surrounded by a network of corded channels giving the pouch structure.

Beware of Faux Boutis. Even in France, it is not unusual for merchants to falsely use the term “boutis” to market their products. Counterfeits are mechanically produced and falsely sold under the name of boutis. I have seen faux boutis being sold in some of the finer linen boutiques in France and here in North America.

These linens were purchased in France where they were being marketed as boutis. They have all been quilted, either by hand or machine and as lovely as they are, they are not boutis.

It is important to note that contemporary artisans place a great respect on the traditional technique and emphasis is placed on learning boutis using traditional designs to learn the technique. Although the technique itself is simple, it requires accuracy and patience to achieve excellence.

Today's artisans along with the 31 boutis associations throughout France, are actively promoting this textile art by teaching, providing workshops, and holding exhibitions where enthusiasts are encouraged to participate. Along with other boutis shows organized by other associations throughout the year, France Boutis hosts the Salon National du Boutis semi annually. It is the national boutis exhibition, held in the town of Caissargues in the south of France.  If you ever travel to France, (one day it will be possible again, sigh!!!), check to see if there will be any boutis exhibitions taking place during your visit. Perhaps even a workshop? You will not regret it.

Sources:

"FICHE D'INVENTAIRE DU PATROMONIE CULTURAL IMMATERIAL: LE BOUTIS OU BRODERIE DE MARSEILLE"

"Le Fil Blanc": A quarterly magazine published by France Boutis

"Marseille: The Cradle of White Corded Quilting"; by Kathryn Berenson, 2010; Published by International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Nebraska - Lincoln, Nebraska.


Comments

  1. Great explanation of Boutis history and lovely examples.

    ReplyDelete
  2. excellent explanation & description. cant wait to find a workshop. Thank you for the post

    ReplyDelete

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