Of Parfilage or Drizzling Through the Regency

Last week, I wrote about the history of goldwork embroidery through the Regency. This week’s article is about a hobby which destroyed such work, known as parfilage in France and "drizzling" in England. Though this hobby was most popular with ladies, there were a few gentlemen who practiced it as well, some of them quite famous. Shocking as it may seem, there were actually at least a few instances when an obsessive drizzler would misappropriate goldwork without permission, in order to satisfy their need to drizzle, sometimes even in public.

Drizzling through the Regency . . .

It is generally believed that the practice of parfilage originated in France, during the reign of King Louis XVI, among the ladies of the royal court at Versailles. This handwork hobby was destructive rather than creative, as those who practiced it spent their time carefully unraveling and removing the gold or silver threads in the braids, laces, fringes, tassels and goldwork embroidery which adorned many garments and textile furnishings of that time, in order to recover the precious metal threads. The French name for this activity probably derived from the French word filage, meaning to spin fiber into thread. Parfilage was essentially the reverse, since gold and silver threads were "unspun," or picked apart, in order to separate the thin metal strips from the textile fibers.

Some scholars are of the opinion that many of the aristocratic ladies who took up parfilage did so primarily to draw attention to their hands as they worked. Parfilage was usually a social pastime, as it was most often practiced in the company of friends and family. In fact, the most ardent parfileuses, that is, ladies who practiced parfilage, held parties or salons during which their guests would engage in their favorite pastime. Since parfilage was not a complex or highly detailed activity, it generally required only the slightest attention to accomplish. Therefore, its practitioners were free to engage in lively conversation as they worked, which may be another reason why so many took up the hobby. These parfilage parties were popular even with Queen Marie Antoinette and the ladies of the French Court.   [Author’s Note:   It appears that very few European gentlemen practiced parfilage in the eighteenth century, but those who did were known as parfileurs.]

The fashionable hobby of parfilage became so popular in France that, by the mid-1770s, many avid parfileuses were running out of items from which to remove metal threads. The demand became so acute that a few enterprising entrepreneurs began to manufacture objects made with gold or silver threads for the sole purpose of being picked apart. In addition to lengths of gold braids and laces, special ornaments, known as pantins, were offered for sale. Pantin, is French for a puppet, or child’s toy, which is animated by pulling a string attached to the ends of the limbs inside the body. The word also meant a person who is incapable of making decisions or lacking in character. Therefore, pantin seemed to be a suitable name for an object whose only purpose was to be picked apart and destroyed. Pantins for parfilage were made in the form of animals, birds, furniture, carriages, chinaware, and even pantomime figures.

Curiously, the majority of the aristocratic ladies who engaged in the practice of parfilage initially did it for pleasure or to show off their graceful hands in motion. It seems that most of them had no need for the money that could be had by selling the fine precious metal strips that they carefully unraveled from goldwork pieces. However, as the French Revolution began to take its toll on the aristocrats of France, parfilage became a source of much-needed funds for some of them. According to at least one author at the time, a diligent and determined parfileuse could recover enough fine strips of precious metal to realize close to 250 livres a year, when sold to a goldsmith or jeweler. The need of many aristocrats for funds from any source during the French Revolution may well explain why so many garments and furnishing textiles, including fine tapestries, are to be found today without the gold and silver threads which once enriched and embellished their surfaces.

The tools necessary for parfilage were a pair of sharp, pointed scissors, a small knife and a stiletto. In the eighteenth century, most ladies carried these tools, along with one or more of the pieces they were picking apart, in a small bag. The majority of these parfilage bags were quite decorative as their owners often carried them in public and a plain, simple bag would not have been considered at all fashionable. Another useful item which many parfileuses carried with them was a spool, winder or shuttle onto which the metal threads could be wound once they were pulled free, in order to keep them from tangling. Initially, a parfileuse would have gathered any of such tools which were available to them. But as the practice became more common, special parfilage sets were made which included all of the implements a parfileuse might need. These purpose-made implements were made to match and most were very finely decorated. They were also usually quite expensive, thereby restricting their purchase and use to affluent parfileuses or parfileurs.

The pastime of parfilage was soon carried beyond the borders of France. By the 1770s, it had become popular at the Court of Austria, the childhood home of the French Queen, Marie Antoinette. At that time, her mother, Maria Theresa, held the throne as the Austrian monarch. Gradually, the hobby became fashionable in other European courts. Sometime during the 1790s, parfilage migrated across the English Channel to Britain, probably with the aristocratic French émigrés who were fleeing the brutality and terror of the French Revolution. As with so many things French which were considered fashionable, a number of ladies in the British aristocracy soon took up the hobby. However, it was not long before they began to refer to the practice as "drizzling" rather than parfilage, though no one is quite sure why it was given that name. Rather unfortunately, those who engaged in this hobby in Britain were often known as "drizzlers" rather than as parfileuses or parfileurs.

In Britain, from the late eighteenth century, right through the Regency, the majority of English ladies who drizzled did sell the metal threads they recovered to their local jeweler or goldsmith for some extra pin money. It is not clear if these ladies were following the example of the French émigrés, who usually needed the money, or if these English ladies were simply too practical to go to the effort to remove all of those precious metal threads for no reason. However, just like in France, there were drizzling parties held in England where ladies could gather to pick apart goldwork, while conversing with their friends and showing off their graceful hands in motion. Available evidence suggests that these drizzling parties were more common in the first half of the Regency, and became less common in the later years of that period.

It must be noted that there is no evidence that anything like the pantins, or small ornaments, made in France for ladies to pick apart, were ever made for that purpose in Britain. Most English ladies drizzled metal threads from laces, braids, fringes and tassels they found on old garments or furnishings. However, when obsessive drizzlers ran out of things to pick apart, some of them were not above taking any goldwork that caught their eye, whether or not it belonged to them. In pre-Revolutionary France, Madame de Genlis told the tale of an incident of parfilage run amok, involving the Duc de Chartes. He attended a parfilage salon one day, wearing a coat encrusted with goldwork. One of the ladies remarked that all of the gold trimmings on his coat would be ideal for parfilage. Apparently unable to control herself, she then snipped a length of fringe from his coat. Following her lead, several more parfileuses came up to him, removing his coat and quickly cutting all of the gold decoration from it and thrusting their ill-gotten treasures into their parfilage bags.

There are no occurences recorded of aristocratic gentlemen being stripped of their gold-bearing garments at drizzling parties in England during the Regency. There were, however, at least a few reported instances when a driven drizzler helped herself to goldwork that did not belong to her. It had become accepted to drizzle at social functions and in public, particularly at the theatre. There were at least a few occasions when a lady was seated in a theatre box near a gentleman, such as a military officer in his dress uniform. If she was a determined drizzler, she might not be able to control herself, and would surreptitiously wield her scissors to snip off bits of braid from his epaulets or gold lacings and trimmings from other parts of his tunic. If she were able to quickly shove her ill-gotten goldwork out of sight, her victim might be completely unaware that his uniform had been vandalized.

However, there were many honest drizzlers who openly requested old, unwanted garments with gold embellishment from their owners. Another source of goldwork would be valets and ladies’ maids who had been given such cast-off garments and might be willing to sell them for ready money. Yet another source was the attic or lumber room of a large house, where might be stored old furnishing textiles, such as draperies or cushions, enriched with goldwork. It must be noted that quite a number of young gentlemen who were enamored of a lady drizzler often sought out gold braid, lace, tassels or goldwork pieces in order to give them as gifts to that young lady, who would promptly pick them apart.

In France, and most of the other European courts, the majority of ladies who enjoyed parfilage had a small, often ornately decorated bag to carry their implements and their work. But in Britain, most drizzlers preferred to use a box rather than a bag to hold their drizzling implements and their work. Very few of these drizzling boxes survive, but the few that do all have locks, which suggests that British drizzlers had a greater interest in securing the fruits of their hobby than did those of other countries. These drizzling boxes were usually fitted with multiple spools or shuttles onto which the recovered gold threads could be wound to prevent them from becoming tangled. Most drizzling boxes also had fittings to hold the implements and tools necessary for drizzling. These boxes were usually very decorative and might be made from a wide range of materials, including fine wood marquetry, tortoiseshell, papier-mâché, decoupage, as well as painted and gilt wood and metal boxes, among others. It appears that a few drizzling boxes were ready-made, most were custom-made by cabinet-makers and other craftsmen, bespoke by the purchaser.

As had become the custom in France, by the turn of the nineteenth century, elegant, decorative drizzling sets were available in London and some of the larger cities of Britain. In some instances, just the drizzling implements were sold as a set. While in other cases, the implements and the drizzling box were all made to match and were sold together. At about this same time, a new "drizzling tool" was introduced. This device was comprised of a short handle to which was affixed a small, sharp triangular blade. This tool was ideal for quickly and easily snipping the stitches which held the gold thread to the foundation cloth. It eliminated the need for a knife and a stiletto, enabling a drizzler to remove gold threads even faster than with traditional drizzling tools.

By the second half of the Regency, drizzling was falling out of fashion, at least in public. One reason for that may be that, after the victory at Waterloo, the Napoleonic Wars were finally over, with many men leaving the military. When they ceased to be soldiers, these men had no need of fine uniforms enriched with goldwork. In addition, clothing for both men and women was becoming more restrained, with a limited use of goldwork embellishment. By that time, generally only the court dresses that young ladies were required to wear when they were presented at Court were enriched with goldwork. The majority of garments worn by civilians might only have a trace of gold thread to highlight a small area as an accent, if any at all.

There was one very famous drizzler, a gentleman, who began practicing the hobby near the end of the Regency. That man was the recently widowed Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Upon the death of his wife, Princess Charlotte, and their stillborn son, in November of 1817, Leopold was devastated by the loss. However, he was more likely disappointed by the loss of his chance at the British throne than the death of his wife and child. To assuage his grief, he soon took up the practice of drizzling. Princess Charlotte had enjoyed the hobby, and he used her drizzling box, reportedly a beautiful box veneered with tortoiseshell. Inside, it contained a set of drizzling implements, and several spools, to hold the gold threads he removed from any goldwork pieces he could find.

Prince Leopold quickly became obsessed with drizzling. He took his tortoiseshell drizzling box with him nearly everywhere he went, despite the fact that, by that time, most people had stopped drizzling, at least in public. Though he remained a prominent figure in Regency London after the death of Princess Charlotte, many thought him quite dull and a few hostesses avoided inviting him to their events. A year or so after the death of his wife and son, Prince Leopold took a mistress, Karoline Bauer. She was a German actress and the cousin of Leopold’s advisor, Baron Stockmar, whom he had seen on stage during a visit to Europe. Most people believe that Leopold was drawn to Karoline because she bore a remarkable resemblance to Princess Charlotte. Miss Bauer was a respectable young woman, who moved to London, with her mother, under the impression that Leopold wished to marry her. Instead, Leopold installed the two in a villa in Regent’s Park, where he visited them regularly, but never took them out in public. During his visits to her home, Karoline usually read aloud, or played the piano, while Leopold sat "diligently drizzling." This went on for many months, but he never proposed marriage.

Many years later, long after they had parted, Karoline Bauer wrote her memoirs. In her book, she frankly recorded how much she despised Leopold’s constant, obsessive drizzling:

Of much that was incomprehensible in this princely wooer, this "drizzling" of his I found the most incomprehensible. And how I hated drizzling! Whenever I saw the prince, followed by his groom with that awful drizzling-box, alight from his carriage, at once I felt the near approach of a yawning-fit. And even to this day, whilst I write down this hateful and dreaded word, after more than a generation, I feel my very heart cramped by the same distressing tendency to yawn.

Prince Leopold continued to drizzle for the rest of his life. He eventually married again, though his new wife’s opinion of his curious obsession is lost to history. Even after he became King of Belgium, Leopold continued to drizzle, though it appears that by then he drizzled both gold and silver threads. It is reported that he drizzled enough silver thread in the course of one year to make a silver soup tureen for his niece, the future Queen Victoria.

Some people in Britain continued to pursue the hobby of drizzling beyond the end of the Regency, though mostly in private. However, with a few exceptions, such as Prince Leopold, drizzling had mostly fallen out of favor during the reign of King William IV. That may be due to the fact that very few items of goldwork survived past the Regency, with so many people picking them apart. Another factor may be the changes in fashion for both clothing and furnishings, which no longer included large amounts of goldwork decoration and embellishment. There is some suggestion that many jewelers and goldsmiths did not wish to purchase the fruits of drizzling, which may have also dampened interest in the hobby.

Dear Regency Authors, might you incorporate drizzling into one of your upcoming romance tales? Would you include an older character, a French émigré, who is a driven drizzler, unable to give up the hobby since it supported her after she fled the horrors of Revolutionary France? How will the family, or maybe the heroine, respond to her compulsion? Mayhap your heroine is a determined drizzler, who sells the fruits of her labor in order to support her young siblings, or perhaps some orphans for whom she cares? What will happen when she and the hero explore the attic of an old house, ostensibly hoping to find more goldwork to help her cause? Then again, perhaps a very spoiled and pretentious young woman who puts on great airs is caught snipping gold braid from the uniform of a military officer at the theatre? Nor should the drizzling box be ignored. Can its small, or even secret, compartments be used for some purpose central to the plot of your story? Are there other ways in which drizzling might feature in a Regency romance?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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5 Responses to Of Parfilage or Drizzling Through the Regency

  1. I have indeed included a drizzling character in a sequel to Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ which I called ‘Vanities and Vexations.’ The character is a sister of Colonel Fitzwilliam who descends on Lizzy and Darcy when Mary becomes betrothed to her philanthropic and noble brother and I used her hobby of drizzling as a metonym for her irritating and useless character.

  2. Christine V says:

    Absolutely fascinating!

  3. Pingback: Goldwork Embroidery Through the Regency | The Regency Redingote

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