The International Quilt Study Center & Museum (IQSCM) in Lincoln, Nebraska is partnering with American Patchwork & Quilting to share information on quilting traditions around the world.

Global Perspective: Vannes

Written by Linzee Kull McCray

Think "fabric" and "France" and you probably picture high fashion on Paris runways. But France is also home to a rich quilting tradition, albeit a very different one than in the United States. While many early American quilts were pieced at home from scraps of cottons or wools, French quilts were more likely to be made by professional quilters in workshops from whole cloth or simply pieced silks.

Although a silk quilt might sound exotic, a thriving silk industry in France during the 17th and 18th century made it less expensive to use than other fabrics: it also held dyes well.

The richly colored example at left was stitched in 1850. It even has a very unusual silk batting.

Photo courtesy of International Quilt Study Center, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2005.018.0018.

What is a Vanne?

This vanne, or small, decorative bedcovering, likely adorned the foot of the bed of a well-to-do Frenchwoman and could be used as a lap piece to cradle a baby. The brilliant green center (the color symbolized fertility and wealth in Marseille, where it was made) and eye-popping pink border are as elaborate as early French piecing got. This piecing is known as a fenetre, or window design. More typical of quilts in the region are whole-cloth quilts, including all-white wedding quilts.

Whether white or colored, wedding quilts used stitched imagery to suggest a bountiful married life. Laurel leaves and flowers, like those in the border of this vanne, as well as vines, fruits and other symbols of abundance appear frequently in Marseille quilts. The narrow channels quilted near the vanne's edge are also distinctively French: the effect could be achieved by closely quilting the rows or by pulling a narrow cord through the channel, along with the batting, to create dimension.

Photo courtesy of International Quilt Study Center, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2005.018.0018.

Leap from Quilts to Fashion

According to Carolyn Ducey, curator at the International Quilt Study Center, the leap from quilts to fashion isn't that far-fetched: these stunning stitching techniques also could be found on petticoats worn by Frenchwomen in the 18th and 19th century. "Dresses were sometimes cut so that the rich designs on the petticoats would show," she says.

The collection of French quilts at the International Quilt Study Center has its basis in a collection by Kathryn Berenson, an internationally recognized authority and collector of 18th and 19th century quilts. An exhibition of French quilts is planned for the Study Center in late 2010.

To learn more about the IQSCM's extensive collection of more than 2,300 quilts and the history behind them, visit quiltstudy.org.

Photo courtesy of International Quilt Study Center, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2005.018.0018.

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