Printed Provencal Fabrics the Indiennes of Provence
It is impossible to visit a market in Provence without seeing sellers of tablecloths, napkins, and other items for home decor. As a word of warning, beware of quality and place of origin as you may not be buying made-in-Provence products. The original printed Provencal fabrics were called les Indiennes.
The guest post below from Remember Provence dives into the history behind these still popular cotton fabrics.
Imports from India
Today’s bright Provencal prints originated from imports from East India in the 16th century. Jean-Baptiste Colbert (Minster of Finance under King Louis XIV) allowed free access into the Port of Marseille, and trade activity increased as imported goods arrive from the Indies. Among them, cotton fabrics with bright floral patterns with colourfast dyes. These so-called “Indiennes” gained immediate success with the local population.
Cotton Fabrics and Patterns
In 16th-century Europe, the fabrics in use are hemp, linen, wool for the poor, silk, and velvet for the wealthy. These vibrantly patterned cotton imports from India are a novelty. The demand for these Indian block-printed fabrics spread quickly in the region, then throughout France. Popular with noble ladies who love fashion trends the Indiennes of Provence start conquering the kingdom.
Provencal merchants begin to imitate Indian manufacturers. They use engraved wooden planks and copper patterned boards to create patterns similar to creations from India and Persia. Both manufacturing and commerce developed to supply the kingdom’s markets with production centres in Arles, Avignon, Marseille, Nimes and Aix-en-Provence.
The cotton supply developed quickly threatening the production of silks, linens and woollens. Protectionist measures were instituted in 1686. The manufacture, marketing of indiennes and even the wearing of clothes made with the famous Provencal fabrics are forbidden. This era of prohibition that lasts until 1759.
Avignon and Marseille
The indiennes manufacturers then turn to territories outside the kingdom to continue their trade. They settle in Avignon under the papal authority, to escape the royal edict. At the beginning of the century, a Marseillais solicits and obtains the authorization to manufacture furnishing articles in white cotton canvas from Minister Colbert. Permission granted as long as these goods are for and stitched in Marseille.
This successions of events mark the evolution of the piqué de Marseille, first in white, then printed with Indian motifs with Provencal designs. Cotton pique is a fabric made of a layer of wadding between two layers of cotton fabric. The quilting forms drawings in the thickness.
Note: The genuine piqués of Marseilles previously used mainly as bed linens are today replaced by machine-stitched, quilted goods. They do not have the same charm as the handstitched versions. They call it « boutis » without knowing that Provencal boutis is an entirely different stitching method!
After the prohibition, the production spreads throughout Provence, outpacing imports. The popularity of this fashion lasts until the end of the 19th century. With the arrival of the industrial era, Provencal residents begin to abandon their traditional costumes for more appropriate clothes. Declining demand forces the factories to close.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the last Indienne manufacture of Provence remains active thanks to the Demery family. The Souleiado company and its museum in Tarascon perpetuate the memory of this once flourishing industry.
Currently, there are several manufacturers of made-in-Provence cotton prints for clothing and home decor. Among them, Souleiado, Les Indiennes de Nimes, and Les Olivades based Saint-Étienne du Grès. Since 1948, the Marat d’Avignon® house produces fabrics with traditional motifs. The company specializes in materials for tableware and decoration – art de la table.
Beware of the Provencal prints sold in markets these good are often sub-standard quality, produced in foreign countries. The Provencal prints are recognizable by all, thanks to their bright colours and their lightness. Everyone appreciates their authenticity!
It’s now possible to coat printed cotton with a thin layer of acrylic to make them more stain-resistant. This modern technique has a real advantage for everyday use: less laundry and ironing. The great benefit of coated tablecloths is that they keep their appearance and can be cleaned with a sponge.