History of Applique'

By: Steffani McChesney

Appliqué is the name given to the decorative technique of sewing fabric shapes to a background fabric of a different color and has been around in some form for as long as humans have been able to use a needle and thread. Some believe that the idea of appliqué may have come from patching holes in worn garments or linens.

One of the earliest examples of the art form is found in the Boulak Museum in Cairo, Egypt. It is a ceremonial canopy dating from 980 BC, which was part of the funeral tent of Queen Esi-mem-kev. The canopy is made of gazelle hide decorated with symbolic serpents and blossoms. The appliquéd pieces are dyed in various shades of pink, blue green and golden yellow. Appliqué usually decorated objects that were used in everyday life so not many examples have survived through the centuries. Surviving examples in museums include crusaders’ banners and cloaks decorated with appliquéd motifs.

For centuries in Europe crewel embroidery using wool yarn dyed in many colors was most often used to decorate household linens. Starting in the 15th Century appliqué began to replace crewelwork on bed curtains and other linens.

In America the use of appliqué to create household textiles began in the 18th Century. The first examples were in the style called Broderie Perse. This name, meaning Persian embroidery in French, is thought to have originated around the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851 held in London at the Crystal Palace, though the method was actually used for many years before the Great Exhibition.

Broderie perse quilts were made of shapes cut from expensive hand-colored chintz made in India. The British shipped this fabric to America charging huge import duties. These quilts were sometimes called one-yard quilts because women would have their friends and relatives who were going to England bring back a yard of fabric concealed in their luggage. A yard of fabric was easy to hide from a nosy customs inspector. The chintz cutouts were appliquéd onto a white or unbleached muslin background, often with decorative stitches such as the blanket or buttonhole stitch. Then the background was heavily quilted in elaborate designs. Since these quilts were so expensive in time and money to produce, they were only used for show so a great many have survived to the present time.

When fabric became readily available and colorfast appliqué was used more and more to create beautiful bedcovers. Unlike patchwork, appliqué lends itself to curved and intricate shapes so more realistic designs can be used. Flowers look like flowers and people look like people. Story quilts became popular in the early 1800s to document important historical events such as battles or presidential inaugurations. These realistic techniques reached their zenith in the 1840s and 1850s. Some of the most intricate and beautiful appliqué quilts ever made were called Baltimore Album quilts because they were produced primarily in Maryland.

Baltimore Album quilts were also known as presentation quilts and autograph quilts. They were originally made to commemorate a festive event such as a wedding or as remembrances to be given to family or friends who might be moving too far away to have much hope of returning for visits. Each block was stitched and signed by a different person. The block design often had particular relevance to the person for whom the quilt was being made and the block was sometimes signed by the maker, hence the name autograph quilts.

At about the same time as Baltimore quilts were having their heyday, the spectacular Hawaiian quilt was being developed. On March 31, 1820, the brig Thaddeus brought the first American missionaries to Hawaii. Legend has it that within hours of debarkation the missionary ladies had organized a quilting lesson. The Hawaiian ladies did not like to cut the large lengths of fabric in to small pieces so they developed a way to use as large a piece as possible. It is believed that German sailors had shown the Hawaiians how to do Schneerenschnit, a paper cutting technique at an earlier time. The inventive Hawaiian ladies used a similar technique to cut out what must be the largest appliqué pieces in the world for their distinctive quilts.

The Hawaiians were not the only non-European people to take to appliqué. After fabric began being used for trade goods, tribal people in Central America and Asia developed some interesting and unusual forms of appliqué.

The Kuna Indians of the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama use reverse appliqué techniques to make the distinctive designs called molas, which are used by the women of the tribe to decorate their traditional blouses. Molas are made in pairs and are used for the front and back of the blouses. These beautiful works usually feature fanciful forms of people, fish, animals and plant life from the maker’s everyday life. Occasionally someone will make a geometrical or abstract set of molas to great effect. The colors are bright featuring red and black and are often embellished with embroidery.

Pa ndau, or flower cloth, appliqué is made by the Hmong tribal people of the mountainous regions of Viet Nam, Laos, and Thailand. Pa ndau is usually used for bed covers, belts, hats, and as embellishment on clothing. The work is also in reverse appliqué embellished with embroidery. Young girls begin learning the craft to attract a husband and supply their trousseaus. After the Viet Nam War many Hmong people immigrated to the United States because they supported the American Armed Forces and were in danger from the Communist government in Viet Nam after the Americans left. There is a large population in Fresno where pa ndau work can be found for at local craft fairs.

Celtic appliqué developed from the decorations used on Irish step dancing costumes. The complex designs are found carved on ancient stones all over Ireland. The appliqués are usually made with bias tape. Stained glass appliqué uses bias tape to emulate leading in stained glass windows. Shadow appliqués are made by covering a colored piece of fabric with a piece of organdy and stitching around the shape. The main styles of appliqué used by needle workers today are molas, Celtic appliqué, broderie perse, shadow appliqué, Hawaiian, pa ndau and stained glass appliqué.