House of the Grenadieres or the art of stitching gold


Text : House of the Grenadières / Association des Grenadières du Haut-Forez – with my many thanks

The former community of communes of the Haut-Forez Mountains is at the origin of the creation of the workshop-museum of gold thread embroidery. The Grenadieres were those women with golden fingers who stitched mainly for the army in the 20th century. The Grenade (the exploding weapon) is the badge they have reproduced and released in greater numbers. Therefore, the Grenadieres were embroiderers of military grenades. The grenade remains the symbol of the French police and firefighters today.

© Claude Benoit à la Guillaume

This exceptional know-how has been present in the Haut-Forez territory since the end of the 19th century, when the Chauvel sisters of Saint-Julien-la-Vêtre left for Paris – what a daring thing to do back then! What happened in the capital is rather vague. However, we know that when they returned, they had the know-how as well as an address book and orders.

© Claude Benoit à la Guillaume

When the First World War broke out they had to produce more and more insignia. 80% of the 20th century French military embroidery will be carried out in the former canton of Noirétable. A bit of luck and a very rural area where it was necessary to occupy the inhabitants (mostly the women) during the winter… The golden age, between the two world wars and during the reconstruction, will see nearly 500 Grenadieres in activity. At home, from generation to generation, one in four women of working age is a Grenadiere. The name “Grenadieres” is linked to precise working conditions and to a given time: embroiderers were from this region, the activity was carried out exclusively at home, the training carried out “on the job”, piecework remuneration and a certain monotony in the work. The Grenadieres produced the insignia, they had to be as productive as possible, so they were working like they did in an assembly line with little valued work. This profession was often seen as a way to improve one’s living conditions a little.

In 2002, only 13 Grenadieres remained in activity. From the end of the 1970s, the trend was to relocate production. A phenomenon that was confirmed in the 90s. Today, the main competitors are Indian and Pakistani embroiderers. In addition to this relocation, the industrialization of production and the increasing use of machine-made embroidery has caused a considerable drop in orders.
The former community of communes felt the tide and supported the creation of the museum as a memory of the precious know-how. The idea was to continue to pass on this local specificity to future generations. Note that there is no “built” trace of this “invisible” activity carried out in the privacy of the family home.

© Association des Grenadières du Haut-Forez

The 13 Grenadieres still active in 2002 retired one after the other, with no replacements. The markets was collapsing and the younger generations reluctant to take up the torch. They had seen their mother work hard without much recognition and hoped for a better future. Therefore, we were looking for new embroiderers in the 4 French training centers in:
– Rochefort-sur-mer
– Sartrouville
– Paris
– Luneville

At the dawn of the 2010s, young graduate embroiderers were hired to come and work in Cervières. They were not “Grenadieres” but embroiderers with gold thread. The same technique but with very different working conditions: 35-hour regime, versatility in the work (they are often embroiderers and seamstresses) which allows them to ensure the entire production chain, no assembly line work. We then moved from a livelihood profession to an artistic profession (and that’s good!).
The Abaque agency took care of the museography, together with an architect.
The Marck group, for which the Grenadieres have worked for years, has deposited its archives with us: samples, catalogs, treasure troves by the thousands and other specialized works …

© Association des Grenadières du Haut-Forez
© Association des Grenadières du Haut-Forez

Since September 2017, Marine Ferrand, a hand embroidery graduate from the Octave Feuillet high school in Paris, has been employed full time. She is employed by the Association des Grenadières du Haut-Forez. The Loire Forez Agglomeration, which has managed the museum since 2017, pays a grant to the association for this purpose.
Trainings and other gold thread embroidery courses are provided by the Association des Grenadières du Haut-Forez.
The smooth purl embroidery is entirely handmade. No possibility of automating it to date. The metallic threads (including the smooth purl) used at the museum are manufactured by the Carlhian company in Lyon.
We mainly use smooth purl but also pearl purl, fillet and glitter. In contemporary embroidery, materials are sometimes mixed and Marine likes to use other embroidery techniques, such as the Luneville crochet.

For further reading:
– Website – Grenadières

The content of this site is free and is not damaged by un-welcomed publicity. I do this work with love and passion but it requires a lot of time. I would like to continue to offer a wider market to our artists, to show how embroidery is a wonderful art. But I do need a little bit of help. If you feel like it, you can participate with a little donation to help me continue. I will be so grateful! Thank you! Claire