Trapunto – an Italian word that means “to quilt” or “embroider” – takes the fine art of quilting to a higher level. Since the 13th century in Italy, textile artists have employed the trapunto technique – with includes the use of excess soft material – to highlight certain areas of a quilt’s pattern.
Trapunto literally takes quilting into a third dimension. Padding a quilt trapunto-style makes its colors more vibrant, its patterns more mesmerizing, and imbues the whole design with a tactile quality that goes beyond what a standard quilt can offer.
When the trapunto method is used, sewn flowers seem to emerge from the stitched garden, and stars, moons, and cloud patterns appear more lifelike. The final result is still as cozy and as inviting as a traditional quilt, but it renders a greater depth of feeling when your hands and eyes pass over its raised curves, peaks and valleys.
How It’s Done
The process of trapunto is a form of quilting, but instead of the traditional three flat layers (the stitched pattern of fabric on top; the batting (stuffing), or middle cushion of fabric; and the backing that ties it all together), the batting is increased to produce a raised surface in select parts of the pattern or motif. FaveQuilts.com says that trapunto “…patterns are intricate and visually stunning, utilizing the texture of the pattern instead of fabric color to make the design pop. Thick yarn or cotton is stuffed into the shape between the top and the batting using a needle. This puffs up the shape, giving the quilt a three-dimensional texture.”
Trapunto quilts are not uniform in technique or production, however. Subtle distinctions can help pinpoint the specific type of needlework and period in which a piece was made.
Provençal and Boutis Quilting
Provençal quilting relies on only two layers of cloth, with no wadding in between; the stitching alone yields the final pattern or motif instead of uniting separate pieces of material to create a pattern, as in traditional quilting. The stitches in Provençal quilting are placed closer together to form smaller spaces or channels into which rolled yarn is inserted with a special needle called a “boutis” to form the raised surface.
This process of trapunto is called pique marseillais and was developed in the early 18th century in Marseilles, in the Provençal region of France.
Boutis quilting is another type of trapunto from the Marseilles region of France. It is similar to the Provençal technique, but it dates to the 19th century. It involves two layers of cloth and requires the addition of stuffing after the running stitch has been completed.
The corded quilting technique is similar to boutis quilting, except the trapunto effect is created with a very thick thread or cord that is inserted between a double outline of thread (called stipling) from the back. This so-called “cording” is also used to frame, separate and create individual patterns within the quilt itself. It produces a heavier relief effect than the softer, more pliable yarn used in boutis quilting.
While not necessarily considered trapunto in its usual definition, woolworks are forms of needlework or embroidery enhanced with layers of yarn that creates the same visual effect as trapunto.
During the age of sailing ships, from 1830 to 1920 or so, sailors needed to spend their considerable downtime on long voyages in pursuits other than card-playing and roughhousing. Repairing sails, nets and their own clothing made sailors competent with a needle and thread, so, not surprisingly, they created woolworks or embroidered images of their ship to pass the time. The image of an embroidered ship would feature a buildup of yarn that made it seem as if it was under full sail – not unlike trapunto, except the yarn was not hidden by a top layer of material.
During the First World War, soldiers in the trenches employed the same technique to create detailed needlework of flags, pocket pillows, and an embroidered form of souvenir with a place for a photograph that featured the distinctive trapunto effect. These “woolies,” as they are called, are a distinctive collectible category that reflects different levels of artistic talent and expertise.
What Collectors Look For
A textile expert can determine the age of trapunto work by looking directly at the weave of the yarn of the main fabric. An “S” weave has the twist of the yarn going upward from right to left (a detail that predominates in wool and cotton before 1865); a “Z” twist is the opposite, going from left to right (a style that prevailed after 1865).
Colors, motifs, patterns, and manufacturing techniques also play key roles in distinguishing vintage trapunto pieces from more contemporary textiles.
Not Just Quilts
Although trapunto is mostly associated with quilts, examples of the technique appear at auction in the forms of vintage clothing, decorative boxes, and artworks, as well as in military uniforms, drapery, furniture, accessories such as purses, and even on footwear.
The three-dimensional effect of trapunto adds elegance to simple embroidery that takes time to master. The story inherent in its patterns and colors represents a personal history that keeps you warm and connects one generation to the next; trapunto throws that history into sharp relief.