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Boutis Provençal: Stitch First, Stuff Later

This sophisticated cousin to quilting makes a textured, pliant, and completely reversible fabric
Threads #105, Feb/March 2003

Several years ago, I embarked on a study of boutis provençal (pronounced boo-TEE prō-vän-SÄL), a hand-sewn form of decorative needlework that produces a refined, supple, and detailed quilt-like effect. An art perfected in southern France in the 17th and 18th centuries, boutis is a whole-cloth technique in which two layers of fabric are stitched together in decorative patterns, into which loose batting and cording are then inserted. Sometimes called broderie de Marseille (after the city that specialized in boutis production) or technique en bosses (embroidery in relief), traditional pieces were almost always white, and included bed covers, layettes, and ladies’ stomachers and wedding petticoats.

Though greatly prized in its day, boutis suffered with the introduction of machine sewing and industrialization, so very few of these treasures exist today. Happily, there’s a revival of interest in boutis in France, and I’ve been able to study the technique. I’ll show you how to stitch and stuff exquisite pieces yourself, and I’ll share a few design ideas as well.

15-inch square example of boutis Provençal
Pétassons, small lap pads like this 15-inch square example, were used to protect clothing when holding a baby.

Boutis is neither trapunto nor quilting

Because of its sculptural surface, boutis closely resembles the look of trapunto. However, the techniques are not identical. In traditional trapunto, the fabric backing is slit open to allow for stuffing, then it’s stitched closed, and usually a second backing (and sometimes a full layer of batting) is added to conceal the sutures. For boutis, stuffing is inserted between the stitched layers through small openings made by separating the threads of the backing fabric, as shown in the step-by-step process below.

I use cotton yarn almost exclusively to cord and stuff my projects, though loose cotton batting can also be…

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