Storytelling returned to Provencal broderie de Marseille imagery in the 19th century. This imagery was composed and worked in larger scale than previously. Needlewomen used thick cording to fill channels and compartments. This thick cording raised the imagery in higher relief than before, for an even greater sculptural effect.
North American quilters did much the same as they elaborated on graceful vase and floral motifs common to the French repertoire rendered in their corded and stuffed white work. They often augmented their imagery with inscriptions to personalize the work with maker initials, date and place.
By this time more women had leisure time to fashion quilted works for their homes and wardrobes.
By the early 19th century in Provence, couples chose to place an all white bedcover on top of their bed the night of their wedding. These pieces held motifs worked in high relief that held significance for the couple and that symbolized prosperity, fertility and abundance. The reappearance of storytelling figurative motifs in all-white Provencal corded needlework and its current revival make one wonder if the extraordinary properties of light along the Mediterranean coast—brilliant sunshine refracted in the prism of an azure sea—encouraged such magnificent textile sculpture.
After the wedding night, tradition required the ceremonial piece be secured in an armoire until a feast day or another family wedding. People with adequate means ordered them from Marseilles tapissiers or local needleworkers. Others, even those with means, stitched them at home as an expression of their affection.
Provencal poet Frédéric Mistral writes that on the day of La Fête Dieu, “The wealthy, from their balconies, would hang out their silk damask embroidered tapestries; the poor, from their windows, would hang their bedcovers quilted in little grids, their quilted throws and bedcovers.” Another source remembers seeing Tarascon mothers waving their couvre-lits piqués blancs from their windows the day of the annual procession of the Tarasque monster - a vile beast that would eat naughty children - to scare the monster away from their homes.
These treasured pieces remain in many homes in Provence. Others emigrated when family members did. Several have been found in New England and the midwestern United States, one in the effects of a priest in Illinois in 1966.
Click images below to view larger and read more information about some of the quilts included in the exhibit.
When presented to society in 19th-century Provence at christening and other social occasions, an infant was accompanied by a lap piece called a petassoun in Provencal. Often beautifully stitched, the lap piece was as practical as it was pretty. A new mother, nicely dressed for the occasion, knew better than to let her infant rest directly on her fancy clothing. Any inadvertent baby dribbles on a white cotton petassoun easily could be removed by the efficacy of Marseilles soap followed by exposure to the Provencal sun.
Women in fishing villages along the Mediterranean coast - Cassis and La Ciotat - maintained a cottage industry making hundreds of petassouns in the broderie de Marseille technique to sell to the area’s fine families. Only about nineteen inches square, they featured lovely imagery to auger good fortune for the infant and always included sprays of blooming rosemary to signify the love surrounding the family’s new arrival.
In 1867 Provencal poet Frédéric Mistral described the stitching in these small confections by women in Cassis as “divine work that resembles a meadow, when the frost embroiders all in white each leaf and stem,” in his epic poem Calendal. Sadly, the cottage industry ended about the time of World War II. However, women throughout Provence continued to quilt everyday petassouns at home from leftover dressmaking materials.