The American taste for whitework evolved in part from intricately stuffed and corded all-white quilts, petticoats, and waistcoats made in Provence since at least the seventeenth century. Often called Marseilles work after the French port through which such textiles were exported, woven goods that simulated the hand-quilted examples were available in England by the 1770s. The popularity of imported woven Marseilles coverlets and yardage inspired American women to make hand-quilted or embroidered bedcovers that mimicked the loomed examples. The terms “whitework” and “quilts in imitation of Marseilles” were used in America to distinguish handmade whiteworks from woven.
Early whiteworks were often associated with an urban elite. Requiring intensive hand work and vast amounts of imported cotton and thread, they demonstrated refinement and wealth. The widening circles of participation in this trend through the early decades of the nineteenth century are tied to the decreasing cost and increasing availability of cotton yarn, thread, and cloth.
This whitework features exquisite stuffing and cording. In this technique, a narrow channel of consistent width was stitched through two layers of fabric. A thick cord was threaded through the channel using a large needle sometimes known as a bodkin. When combined with stuff work, cording was often restrained to delicate elements such as tendrils and stems.
Stacy C. Hollander, "Basket of Flowers Whitework Quilt," exhibition label for White on White (and a little gray).Stacy C. Hollander, curator. New York: American Folk Art Museum, 2006.