Between the Wars there was a tremendous fashion for Richelieu Work (Broderie Richelieu in French), with many women making their trousseaux in the 1930s to include household linen in what was more generally referred to as 'white work' (Broderie Blanche). Because there is no distraction of colours, technique matters, so it was important to demonstrate your skill with finely embroidered white on white tablecloths and napkins, sheets and pillow cases. If this altar cloth in the church at Sainte Catherine de Fierbois is anything to go by, the enthusiasm for white on white cutwork spilled over into the ecclesiastical realm too.
The altar cloth is made using a stitch called Point de Richelieu, a small scalloped closed blanket stitch which is used to create the outline of a design, then small sharp pointed scissors are used to cut away the cloth inside the stitching, forming something that is a halfway house between embroidery and needle lace, known in English as cutwork. To prevent a complex piece from simply falling apart, stitched bars with little bobbles called picots are made to bridge the larger cut away sections (if the bars don't have the picots then technically it is Point de Renaissance). Its heyday was 1920 to 1939. Once World War Two broke out, fripperies like embroidery were packed away, and the knitting needles came out to produce more practical items. After the Second World War women did go back to embroidery, but adopted much less technically demanding styles, such as cross stitch and needlepoint. Broderie Anglaise (another type of white work) patterns were published in women's magazines from time to time, but they are a far cry from the intricate and delicate Broderie Richelieu done by the previous generation of stitchers.
Nowadays, you probably couldn't make an altar cloth like this. Not because modern embroiderers don't have the skills, but because it is quite likely neither the quality of cloth nor thread would be available. It is particularly difficult to find long filament natural fibre thread of sufficient fineness to do this sort of work these days.
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