Object: Bedspread, c. 1780
Accession #: 1966.0002
White work flourished during the middle ages when the use of color was prohibited by church edicts as “excessive luxury in dress”. It is white stitching on white background and gained popularity in America until the 1790s when it was considered the symbol of the height of fashion. It was considered so fashionable to the point where some rooms were done all in white work. An example of white work is this English or American White Marseilles Coverlet with a Medallion surrounded By 16 Points and the Royal British Coat of Arms (Lion and Unicorn flanking the closed crown topped by St. George's Cross; “GR” under crown) in Wilton’s collection.
The designs on this particular Marseilles coverlet are significant. St. George was the patron saint of England. According to the apocryphal Acts of St. George, he held rank of tribune in the Roman Army and was beheaded by Diocletian c. 303 for protesting against the Emperor’s persecution of Christians. He was universally recognized as a saint sometime after 900. He had a widespread following and many miracles were attributed to him as well as a legend told of his slaying of a dragon. The banner of St. George, the red cross of the martyr on a white background was adopted for the uniform of English soldiers possible during the reign of Richard I, later became the flag of England and the White Ensign of the Royal Navy. It also has the Royal British Coat of Arms which was used as a national symbol for Great Britain and its reigning monarch.
White bedcovers were in fashion until the 1830s and were still being made in some rural areas as late as the 1850’s and 1860’s. This particular coverlet is a Marseilles coverlet. Marseilles quilts were made in the place of the same name in the South of France and imported to England and from there to the colonies throughout the eighteenth century. According to one historian, these carefully made Marseilles coverlets were “elaborately stuffed and corded, were usually all white and made of silk and linen although colors, and cotton and wool were sometimes used”. Their demand lessened with the 1763 English patent obtained for a loom-weaving process that produced woven cloth resembling the hand-stitched Marseilles quilting.
To hand-stitch white on white took a skilled needle worker and could take several years to complete. Most of this work would have been done during the day when the white on white stitches could be seen best. However, this coverlet in Wilton’s collection is thought to be made on a double loom to give it a quilted effect. The Randolphs would have desired to furnish their homes with the latest fashions and may have sought to adorn their bedrooms with white on white coverlets like this one with similar motifs.
Collins, Michael. “St. George”. Britannia. 4 May 2013.
<http://www.britannia.com/history/stgeorge.html>Weissman, Judith and Wendy Lavitt. Labors of Love: America’s Textiles and Needlework,
1650-1930. Random House. New York: 1994.