The surprising history behind Provencal textiles
The story behind these exotic textiles, so synonymous with Provence began in Marseille initially arriving by ship from India in 1564. Known as ‘Indiennes’ the light, bright, colourfast materials quickly caught the eye of the locals and in fact seduced all classes of the population.
The demand was such that in the middle of the 17th century, they started being produced in Marseille and Avignon. Armenian dyers and fabric makers were brought into Marseille to share their skills with local producers. These new printed fabrics, designed using the colours from Provencal plants; the yellow of the gorse, the red of the madderwort were printed directly onto the fabrics from wooden engravings. The new industry became a serious competitor with the other French textile industries of linen, silk and wool, with several factories in Lyon forced to close down. (A similar chain of events happened in England with imported chintz.)
The booming import trade didn't go unnoticed either. In 1664 King Louis XIV had his Minister of Finance, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, create the Compagnie des Indes (East India Company) in order to take a controlling role. The indiennes became all the rage at the French court. The vogue was satirised by Molière in a production of his comedy Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1670),
Finally in 1686 they were banned. The law forbade not just the production but also the trade and even the use of these ‘Indiennes’.
The local manufacturers in order to protect their businesses decided to move to the nearby Comtat Venaissin, an area around the city of Avignon which as a Papal enclave was not subject to this ruling.
The ban lasted 73 years during which a lucrative contraband trade had developed. In 1734, a concordat was nevertheless signed between the Pope and Louis XV, submitting the Comtat Venaissin to the same law. The factories in Avignon then also closed. (It was not until the 19th century that this type of factory would reappear.) When the ban at long last was lifted in 1759, the indiennes took off again and reached astonishingly new heights in popularity for the next century. Easy to wear, wash and maintain, they would traditionally be used in Provence for household goods such as tablecloths or bedspreads, or items of clothing. Women wore skirts, scarves and aprons, sometimes of different designs all at once; men sported waistcoats and kerchiefs. Artisanal production was hard hit in the aftermath of Europe's industrialisation and many small companies closed down.
Today the indiennes are more popular than ever in Provence, now produced by modern manufacturing methods, unfortunately only one company remains producing locally having printed and designed the fabrics since 1818.
You will find the fabrics used for everything from potholders to stuffed toys, the printed fabrics are still based on the original patterns; the detail of an old design becomes the principal motif of a new print. A little pomegranate appearing formerly in a traditional Provencal garden pattern, made up of a myriad of small motifs suddenly becoming the principal design of an upholstery fabric, all with a brightly coloured contemporary look and feel. The fabrics themselves and a multitude of dinnerware can be found throughout Provence, in shops and markets and make a lovely souvenir to take home from your travels.
TIKI TOURS Country Roads France tour includes a visit to Avignon, whilst there look out for the rue des Teinturiers, Rocher des Doms park and view the statue commemorating Jean Althen (1710-1774) the Armenian refugee who introduced garance (red madder-wort dye) into the area, paving the way for the production of les indiennes.