Broderie Perse: The Applique of Wealth, Loop Holes, and Subterfuge

I love getting comments from my readers – both those who agree with what I write and those who vehemently disagree with what I write.  My blog about quilt store etiquette had several comments and it was fun responding to each one of those.  A few months ago, one of my commenters asked if I could write a blog about Broderie Perse.  And if there’s one thing I love even more than comments, it’s blog ideas you want to hear about (so feel free to leave suggestions – hint, hint). 

I have viewed many quilts which used the Broderie Perse technique – primarily antique ones.  As a matter of fact, until last year, I considered Broderie Perse one of those “older” applique techniques, rarely used any longer, but beautiful when executed correctly.  However, 2022 kind of threw this idea for a loop.  You all know my affinity for Zoom classes.  I took several applique Zoom classes last year which used this technique, and the results were amazing.  I decided then I needed to up my applique toolbox to include this technique.  

Broderie Perse actually means Persian Embroidery, but it’s not embroidery at all.  It’s applique.  This type of applique has been around since the 1700’s.  And since this technique has quite a bit of history behind it, I thought it would be a good idea to begin with its definition and then move to its history.  Broderie Perse fabric is a Chintz material.  Chintz comes from the Hindi meaning “spotted, speckled, variegated, or sprayed.”  Chintz fabric usually has a white base with floral and animal prints on it.  The most popular of these prints is The Tree of Life, which found its way onto hundreds of quilts in the 1700s.  These prints were made from a woodblock, and were printed, painted, or stained.  Most of the Chintz fabric came from Hyderabad, India, and they were used for bedcovers, quilts, draperies, and curtains. 

Now let’s start at the beginning of Chintz’s exportation from India to other parts of the world and an explorer named Vasco de Gama. 

Vasco reached Calicut, India in 1498.  From that point, lots of items were exported from India to England and France – primarily spices and minerals.  However, the lovely Indian Chintzes also were included in the exports.  They were well-received and became much sought after.  By the time 1680 rolled around, more than a million pieces of Chintz were imported to England each year.  It seemed every household which could afford the imported fabric, had to have it.  It was a best-selling item which put a lot of gold in the pockets of import companies and dry goods retailers. 

However, it also put a lightning bolt of fear in the hearts of fabric manufacturers both in England and France.  At this point in history, neither country had the knowledge nor the technology to make printed fabric.  They could produce solid-colored fabrics and then dress makers and tailors could have this fabric embroidered.

But they didn’t know how to make the Chintz fabric which was now so popular it was used in the clothing of royals and well-to-do:

And when this clothing was no longer worn by those folks, it was passed down to servants and others which re-made the Chintz into linings or clothing.

So you can see how all this Chintz-iness put a serious crimp the in the money coffers of local textile mills.  Chintz popularity grew so wild that by 1686 France banned the import of Chintz and in 1720, England followed suit.  Their governments felt the bans were needed in order to protect their local fabric manufacturers and uphold this end of their economy.  Which it did – but boy, did the consumers grumble.  They liked the Chintz.  They wanted the Chintz.  They were not happy they could no longer get it. However, in the long run, these bans worked in favor of the consumer.  The textile mill owners in France and England soon realized they had to “up their game.”  They had to learn how to produce printed fabric.  But India wasn’t real keen on sharing their technology (because the bans hurt them economically) and England and France couldn’t find the Thomas Edison of fabric printing anywhere in their countries.

As almost any historian can tell you, where there is a great want for something which is super-scare, little things called the “Black Market Economy” and “Legislative Loopholes” will emerge.  The biggest legislative loophole came from France, and it concerned the Court of Versailles. 

The Court of Versailles was exempt from the ban – so all those French noble folk could continue to get all the Chintz they wanted.   

England’s royalty wasn’t about to be so two-faced boldly divided.  There weren’t any stated loopholes, but there was a great deal of subterfuge in play.  To begin with, England’s military had a presence in India.  These military personnel began to carefully obtain samples of the Chintz printing in each step of the manufacturing process.  These were smuggled back to England along with any information garnered when the samples were acquired.  And a priest, Father Courdoux, who was living in India actively converting the Indians to Christianity, also played a crucial role.  While he was busily converting India’s citizens to the Roman Catholic Church, he also was pumping them for information about Chintz printing.  This knowledge was then written down and sent back home. 

With all the samples and information flowing into both countries, by 1759, England and France were producing their own Chintz. 

But in many ways the damage was already done to Chintz’s popularity.  By 1759, the French had been without Chintz for 73 years (unless you were in the Court of Versailles). The English had no Chintz for 39 years.  By this time, the women of both countries had purchased the remaining imported Chintz and developed ways of making it stretch as far as they could.  They cut it up – separating the flowers, fauna, and animals.  Then they stitched those down on a solid-colored background which closely matched the background of the Chintz.  And Broderie Perse was born.

This is a museum example of English Broderie Perse.  The figures were stitched down using a very fine buttonhole stitch or the raw edges were folded under and whipped stitched into place.  One tidbit of interesting history which really surprised me was it appears a paste was sometimes used to adhere the applique motif to the background before sewing.  Quilt historian Kimberly Wulfert shared this information: “In more than one source I have read, paste was used in the early 1800s by women making cut-out Chintz quilts.”  In the 1882 Dictionary of Needlework, Bullard and Shiel mention Broderie Perse Quilts and also mention paste: “The fabric is stretched on a frame and then the applique pieces are pasted in place.  Once the paste is dry, the fabric is removed from the frame and the motifs are stitched in place.”  Unfortunately, no mention is made about what the paste is made of or from.  However, I assume we can surmise from this that the use of basting glue is not a new idea to quilting. 

So this is how England and France handled the Chintz shortage, but what about the United States?  By the 1700’s we had settled the East Coast and were gradually pushing westward.  Did the US have a Chintz affinity, make Broderie Perse Quilts, or suffer from the Chintz bans?  The answer to these questions is “Yes.”  Yes, the women of the United States loved Chintz fabrics.  And yes, they felt the pinch of the Chintz bans.  Both France and England exported goods to the United States.  When both countries were “banning” the fabric, it meant less Chintz yardage was reaching our coastline.  Even when England had the technology to manufacture their own Chintz, we were at their mercy on pricing and taxes.  As a colony, we were forbidden from manufacturing any of our own printed fabric, so we could do nothing to lower the price on Chintz or even to change the market competition.  As a result, Americans were paying a high price for any Chintz fabric, regardless of the quality.  Most families could not afford to pay for yards and yards of the beautiful fabric, but you know what?

Most families could afford one yard.  And American women developed what they called “One Yard Quilts.”   Just like the English women, they would take the one yard of Chintz, cut the figures apart and trim off any borders or print, then applique those down onto their homespun fabric.  The result was a standard-sized bed quilt. Where the American Broderie Perse and the English Broderie Perse really differed was in the arrangement of the figures.  American quilters would arrange as many of these related figures together as they could to form a large center block which was appliqued.  Then other pieced blocks were arranged around the center block to make a Medallion Quilt.  These quilts became so popular that once America was able to manufacture their own printed fabric (in the late 1700’s), Chintz fabric was printed with one large design for the Medallion center and enough smaller pieces to surround it.  By 1840, Chintz could easily be found, and it was affordable.  It began showing up in pieced quilts as well as appliqued.

We can’t leave the history of Broderie Perse behind without talking about one of the most famous Broderie Perse quilts: The Rajah Quilt.

The Rajah Quilt is a large quilt created by women convicts in 1841, while traveling from Woolwich to Hobart.  They used the materials organized by Lydia Irving of the British Ladies Society for “Promoting the reformation of female prisoners.”  First, let’s take a look at the Powerhouse of Persuasion known as Lydia Irving.  Lydia served on Elizabeth Fry’s British Ladies Society.  Elizabeth was the leader of this group and one of the society’s goals was to reform women convicts and then re-introduce them back into the public as true gentle women.   Lydia had a two-pronged approach to this goal:  First, talk to the captains of the convict ships who were taking these women to the (then) penal colony of Australia and persuade them to allow the British Ladies Society to give the female convicts much needed items to take with them – knives, forks, aprons, and sewing materials.  Second, she convinced the Naval Board to fund these items.  The plan was to visit every convict ship the night before it sailed to calm the women bound for Australia and give them the items.

On April 5, 1841, 180 women prisoners were given sewing supplies before they sailed on the ship, Rajah.  The women’s names are still known and listed in records.  They set sail from Woolwich and by July 19, 1841, they had arrived at Hobart.  It was during this journey they embroidered and sewed materials into an appliqued coverlet now known as the Rajah Quilt.  Kezia Elizabeth Hayter (who was the only free woman aboard ship) was probably the “designer.”  Kezia had come from Millbank Penitentiary to help the women of Australia form their own society, mirrored after the British Ladies Society.  Approximately 29 of the female convicts worked on the quilt.  The quilt includes a message embroidered in silk thread which thanked the “Convict Ship Committee.”  It was presented to Jane Franklin, the governor’s wife.  The quilt was sent eventually sent back to Britain to Elizabeth Fry and was forgotten.  It was rediscovered in the 1980’s, tucked away in an attic in Scotland.  It was returned to Australia in 1989 and is now held at the National Gallery of Australia.  It can be noted research shows this quilt wasn’t particularly unique, as other forms of convict needlework are mentioned, but what does make The Rajah Quilt special is it’s the only documented quilt made by convicts which still survives. 

After reading nearly 2,000 words about Broderie Perse, maybe you’ve decided you’d like to give it a try.  It’s not difficult – especially if you like applique.  And it can be done either by hand or machine.  You may have most of the supplies already in your studio.

Broderie Perse Supply List

Applique fabric – For a traditional look, use cotton Chintz fabric with medium- to large-sized, clearly defined motifs.  If the figures are too small, the process may become too frustrating, especially if you’re still fairly new to applique. 

Background fabric – In traditional Broderie Perse, the quilter matches the applique background fabric to the Chintz background.  I have seen Broderie Perse on contrasting backgrounds and it’s lovely.  Use what you like.

Fusible Web – This is for machine Broderie Perse.  You’ll want a light to medium weight. 

Basting Glue – This is used for hand sewn Broderie Perse, but it comes in handy if the fusible webbing comes loose with your machine applique.

Stabilizer – This is for machine applique.  A light or medium tear-away works well, as does the iron-on Easy Knit.

Sewing Machine – This is for Broderie Perse done on the machine.  Your sewing machine needs an adjustable zig zag or buttonhole stitch. 

Applique Needles – These are for the Broderie Perse done by hand.  I usually use a #9 or #10, but like most things quilting, use the needle you like best and works well for you. 

Thread – The thread should blend with the different colors of your motif, no matter if you’re sewing the motifs by hand or machine.

Small, Sharp Scissors – You’ll fussy cut around the motifs, so you want a scissor you can control and get into small spaces and curves with easily. 

General Sewing Supplies

To Begin

No matter which applique method you choose, the first step in Broderie Perse is selecting the motifs.  Study your Chintz carefully and choose the motifs you want to use.  Avoid any small ones, as they can be frustrating to sew either by hand or machine. 

If you are machine appliqueing – Apply the fusible web to the piece of fabric with the motifs.  Rather than attempting to press the fusible only on the pieces you want to use, just apply the webbing to the entire piece of fabric. This way you know the fusible is on all motifs.  Once the fusible is pressed into place (be sure to follow manufacturer’s directions), leave the paper backing on the fabric.  This makes the motifs easier to cut out and stabilizes any curved, bias edges. 

If you are hand appliqueing – Carefully cut out the motifs you want to use.  If the Chintz is soft, you may want to press some starch into the wrong side of the fabric to give it a crisper hand.

Once the motifs are cut out, you will probably need to do some additional trimming.  For machine applique, you want as much of the background removed as possible.  For hand appliquers, some decisions will need to be made at this point.  If you plan on using traditional needle turn applique, you will want to leave a slight background margin around the motifs to turn under – less than ¼-inch but a tad more than 1/8-inch.  If you plan to use a buttonhole stitch, trim away as much of the background as possible.  You won’t need a margin to turn under.

Even if you have a really good idea of what motifs you want to use and how you want to arrange them, cut out as many motifs as possible.  It’s always better to have too many than not enough.  And who knows?  Once you begin arranging all the applique pieces, you may come up with a better idea and need more.

Let me also insert a word of caution here about the background fabric.  If the applique background is a different color than the Chintz background, and you’re either machine appliqueing or hand appliqueing using a buttonhole stitch, make very sure all the Chintz’s background is trimmed away as much as possible.  If not, it will be glaringly noticeable.

Once the motifs are chosen and trimmed, begin arranging them on the background fabric.  If you’re machine appliqueing, keep that paper backing on the motifs until right before you’re ready to press them into place.  I find my iPhone super-helpful at this point.  Arrange the motifs.  Take a picture.  Look at the picture and see what you want to change.  Keep this up until you have everything arranged the way you want it. 

If you are machine appliqueing – Once you’re happy with the design, remove the paper backing from the motifs.  Using the picture on your phone as a reference, arrange the applique pieces a final time, making any adjustments needed.  Then fuse the motifs into place, using an up-and-down pressing motion and following the manufacturer’s guidelines for temperature setting. 

It’s easy for the applique pieces to shift out of place when pressing.  And this can be really frustrating, especially after you’ve spent a lot of time arranging and re-arranging your design.  I can tell you how I handle this.  I use pins to hold the motifs in place.  I push the pins into the design vertically, and then remove them as I press.  If you want to use this method, you’ll need to have a heat-resistant pad under your design.  In the past I’ve used folded sheets or beach towels.  However since this little tool entered my quilting life

I use my wool mat.  It works better than anything. 

If you are hand appliqueing – You will want to glue baste your motifs into place.  You can pin them in place, but I have found the applique pieces want to shift when pinned.  I glue in a similar method as I fuse.  I pin the motifs in place by pinning them down vertically.  Then I carefully lift the edges of the pieces and apply the glue (Roxanne’s Glue and a pair of tweezers work wonderfully for this).  Once everything is glued into place, I allow it to dry.  Then I carefully remove the pins, adding more glue if needed, and give the piece a press with a hot, dry iron.  This will set the glue.  One word of caution – no matter if you’re needle turning or using a buttonhole stitch, if you hand appliqueing, don’t put glue on the edges of the motifs.  It will be impossible to turn the fabric under or push a needle through it.  As I lift the edges of the applique pieces, I apply the glue more towards the center of the motif. 

Once the applique pieces are securely in place, now it’s time to stitch.

If you are machine appliqueing —  Now it’s time to determine if you want to blanket stitch, zigzag stitch, satin stitch, or use one of the other decorative stitches on your machine.  It’s really helpful if you have a spare motif to practice on.  This allows you to try out stitch lengths and widths to see what will work best.  Before you begin stitching, but sure to apply the stabilizer to the wrong side of the background.  The stabilizer helps prevent the background fabric from being chewed by the feed dogs as you manipulate your fabric, so the needle follows the curve of the motif.  Be sure to change your top thread as you stitch, as this thread needs to match the applique piece, not the background.  Once all the stitching is complete, follow the stabilizer’s directions on how or if to remove it.

If you are hand appliqueing – Most hand sewn Broderie Perse employs either needle turn – where the edge of the motif is folded under and stitched in place – or a tiny, closely set buttonhole stitch. 

Either way works well, and it’s all up to you and whichever technique you like best.  Just like with machine applique, be sure to change your thread to match the motif, not the background. However, unlike machine applique, you don’t need a stabilizer if you’re hand appliqueing.

And that’s it.  Broderie Perse isn’t difficult, but it is handled a bit differently than “traditional” machine or hand applique.  I have not made an entire Broderie Perse quilt, but I have begun using the technique in applique, by cutting out leaves or flowers and adding those in my “traditional” applique pieces.  It adds a lot of detail without a great deal of work – and you have to love a technique which does that!

Until Next Week, Remember the Difference is in the Details!

Love and Stitches,


4 replies on “Broderie Perse: The Applique of Wealth, Loop Holes, and Subterfuge”

Interesting article. I used broderie perse in 2017 to capture some great birds from a piece of batik. My quilt got a 1st in Paducah and everyone seemed surprised that I had used such an old technique. I guess what was old often becomes new again.
Karen Grover
PS my blog is not up to date. You can find pictures on my pinterest page. The quilt name is Back to Bali

What a great treatise on Broderie Perse! I especially loved the section about the Rajah Quilt. You do such great research on your subject matter.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: