Often translated into English as “corded white work”, boutis was originally referred to as “broderie de Marseilles”, or the “embroidery from Marseilles”. The name “boutis” (pr. boo-tee) comes from the ancient provençal word “bourrer” (pr. boo-ray), which means to stuff, or in this case to cord. Boutis is a 3 dimensional textile sculpture, which has been stitched and corded to create patterns through light and shadow.
A true-to-tradition work of boutis is created by hand stitching a pattern or design onto 2 layers of white cotton batiste. Using the running stitch, the design or motifs are outlined with narrow channels, 2 parallel lines about 1/8″ apart. Before the cording is introduced into the channels, the work is flat and uninspiring, without any texture or relief. The stitching is almost invisible.
When the stitching has been completed, the channels are filled with a cotton yarn which is inserted into the channels with a tapestry needle. The cording raises the design and defines the patterns by adding relief to the work and giving it a dimensional quality.
When held up against the light, boutis will let the light pass through between the corded channels and in this way illuminate the design. It’s this play of light and shadow that is the essence of boutis.
One of the earliest surviving quilts showing stuffed, corded whitework is the “Tristan Quilt” on display in the “Medieval and Renaissance Gallery” of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England. Made with linen fabric and thread, the quilt has been traced to an atelier in Sicily, Italy between 1360 – 1400.
This style of raised and stuffed whitework first made its way into France in the early 17th century through the port of Marseilles where the local artisans and craftsmen adapted the materials and patterns they saw in the imported textiles to materials that were easily accessible to them. The designs created in these early studios in Marseilles quite logically evolved into symbols and motifs familiar to their surroundings and circumstances. The relief added pattern and an elegant beauty to an otherwise plain white cloth and was often used to add beauty as well as warmth to clothing.
The term “boutis” first appeared in Provence, France in the 19th century. The creation of this particular technique of raised whitework became specific to the south of France.
Respect for tradition in both technique and design is still held in high esteem by the contemporary French women and men who create boutis, and many still incorporate the traditional motifs into their work.
Traditions and Symbols
French landscape and culture is rich in symbolism. Through the ages the people of the southern regions of France in Provence and Languedoc have revered and celebrated the generosity of the light and the natural beauty of their land.
The colours and images of nature have been immortalized in various art forms through the ages.
Symbols and motifs are integral to the design of boutis. The repertoire of motifs and symbols that has developed through local traditions is vast.
Cathedrals and churches all over the country curate extraordinary works of ecclesiastical needlework.
“Les Cigales”, or cicadas, are celebrated in many art forms as the heralds of summer.
Symbols of happiness, such as intertwining vines and hearts, are found in antique boutis quilts.
In “Le Mireille”, a design by Francine Born, she uses traditional symbols to represent the local flora and fauna.
Classical motifs depicted moral and religious values, royal emblems were common, tales and legends were kept alive. As well as celebrating milestone events, designs expressed cultural values of the time. Today as in the past, designs are carefully and specifically chosen to represent identities and celebrate milestones.