Tabitha Baker is a 3rd-year PhD student at the University of Warwick and V&A Museum. Her thesis is entitled ‘The Embroidery Trade in Eighteenth-Century France’ and is an AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Partnership project supervised jointly by Professor Giorgio Riello (Warwick) and Professor Lesley Miller (V&A).
On a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in 1903, Beatrix Potter was shown an elaborately embroidered French velvet coat from the 1780s. Inspired by the sparkling embroidery which had retained its brilliance for over a century, an illustration of the coat was to appear on page 12 of her children’s story, The Tailor of Gloucester. The coat was later displayed in 1987-88 as part of the Beatrix Potter exhibition at the Tate Gallery, and remains a stunning example of eighteenth-century court dress. Eighteenth-century French embroidered clothing in the collections of the V&A and museums around the world is displayed for its technical excellence and beauty. Yet these objects are also the products of a deeply hierarchical and complex luxury trade, the socio-economic intricacies of which have been little studied to date.
My research examines the relationship between the consumption and professional production of fashionable embroidery for clothing and furnishings in eighteenth-century France (c.1660-1791), with a particular focus on Paris and Lyon. By using archival sources alongside surviving embroidered objects from museums in the UK, France and the US, I investigate how embroidery techniques changed over time, how the trade functioned in different cities, and the nature of the professional embroiderers’ clientele.
Embroidery was a well-established trade in France by the time the ‘Beatrix Potter’ coat was produced, readily supplying the luxury clothing and furnishings market in the major cities of France and elsewhere in Europe. Due to their dealings with elite customers who were in a position to command long cycles of credit, it was not uncommon for professional embroiderers who ran large workshops to find themselves in precarious financial situations and succumb to bankruptcy.
The BSECS/Besterman Centre for the Enlightenment Travel Award enabled me to go to France in June 2017 to undertake detailed research on the bankruptcy records of the professional embroiderers of eighteenth-century Paris. At the Archives de Paris, I discovered more about their customers, orders, prices and delivery timeframes. This led me to analyse more fully the working practices of professional embroiderers during this period, including how long it took to produce and deliver to the client different types of embroidery, and how the cost of producing embroidery varied over the course of the eighteenth century.
An item such as this waistcoat (left), elaborately embroidered in coloured silk and silver threads and which can be seen today at the V&A, is one example of the fashion for luxuriously embroidered clothing at the royal court and the types of commissions taken on by the professional embroiderers of Paris. The order books that I have been working on at the Archives de Paris suggest that embroidery in gold and silver, popular amongst members of the French nobility, could have cost anything between 800 and 2500 livres to purchase, and such orders were placed with embroiderers at the top end of the occupational hierarchy, usually embroiderers to the king and court.
Due to their economic and social standing, customers of this calibre were able to purchase expensive luxury products such as these waistcoats on a long credit cycle, meaning that products would not be paid for in full until months or even years after the receipt of the product. Embroiderers who supplied the wealthy nobility were therefore caught up in a credit cycle, and were often owed great sums by their clients, as can be seen in many of the bankruptcy files.
Thanks to the generosity of BSECS and the Besterman Centre for the Enlightenment, my findings from this period of research have enabled me to make significant progress on my examination of the structure of the professional embroidery trade and how the embroiderers’ occupation reacted to a fluctuating consumer market. A close analysis of how embroidery was consumed in France during the eighteenth century, and the effects this consumption had on the structure of the French embroidery trade, will, I hope, contribute to a greater understanding of the relationship between elite consumption and the French luxury trades.
– Tabitha Baker