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A history of botanical cushions

If you put all the cushions I’ve designed over the last 20 years in one place, there would be enough stems, buds, leaves, vines, grasses and flowers to fill an imaginary garden. By looking into the history of cushions, I’ve discovered that the cushions we make are part of a tradition of botanical cushions that stretches back centuries.

The word cushion comes from the old Anglo-French word ‘quissyn’, related to the latin word ‘coxinum’ meaning hip. It makes sense – a cushion is a place to rest one’s hips.

But resting doesn’t have the same associations everywhere. From places such as Ancient Egypt right up to 20th Century China, cushions were traditionally hard.
They were made out of materials such as wood or stone, sometimes covered in fabric. In other places, comfort was prioritised and cushions were stuffed with straw, feathers or reeds.

Throughout history, cushions have been a symbol of ease, relaxation and even luxury. The more you had, the fancier you were.
But during the industrial revolution, new and more efficient weaving and dyeing techniques were developed. These made cushions more affordable and now they are a soft and special part of people’s homes.

Here are some incredible examples of botanical cushions through time….

Buzzy, summery 16th-century gorgeousness
This incredible embroidered linen cushion panel is teeming with life.
It’s just so lush, with roses, pears, bees, grapes, and birds curling around each other, filling up all the space.

Cushion cover, 1590–1610, British, Met Museum

A playful 17th-century Persian design
It looks like the rabbits and dogs on this cushion, playing among the vine tendrils, are trying to cheer him up.

Reclining figure, 1630-40, attributed to Iran, The Met Museum

Eye-popping 18th-century flowers
This cushion cover looks to me like it’s travelled through time to the 1970s.
It’s such a bold, geometric interpretation of carnations – in silky flame stitch.

Cushion cover, 1701/25, England The Art Institute of Chicago

 

Cushions fit for a queen
Marie-Antoinette, the last queen of France, embroidered this set of cushions herself.
They were for the palace she liked to visit in summer, and she’s really captured that season with the floral embroidery on light cotton fabric.

Daybed, Jean-Baptiste-Claude Sené, 1788, France, The Met Museum.

Heavenly symmetry
This is such an intricate cushion design from the Chinese Qing dynasty.
I can spot lotus, peonies, peaches and apparently there are even bats in there too.
I love the amazingly bold colours, sky blue on imperial yellow with hints of pink, green and orange.

Cushion cover, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), 1800/25, The Art Institute of Chicago

As you can imagine, it’s such a thrill for me to see how artisans throughout history have been inspired by the same things as me – from a vine tendril to a meadow bloom.

A lot of these artisans would have been women, trying to capture the beauty of the natural world and bring them into their homes.

Consider me signed up to carry on their mission!