French tablecloths of Provence history

French Tablecloths of Provence History

French tablecloths have a fascinating history.  Let’s delve in ..

For many people, the sight of these brightly coloured Provencal tablecloths with their distinctive patterns of olive branches, vines, sunflowers, lavender, lemons and cicadas will trigger longings for the south of France.  The intense sun-drenched colours of these vibrant, bright fabrics are an iconic symbol of Provence. You may be surprised to learn they were not originally created in France.

Les Indiennes

These exotic textiles first arrived in France from India in the early 17th century mainly through the port of Marseille. Les indiennes as they were known, were an instant success in Europe for clothing and furnishing.

These luxurious fabrics were light, bright and importantly, colour fast. As a result, the French loved them.  Responding to demand, the French soon started producing their own version.

The booming import trade didn’t go unnoticed. In 1664, King Louis XIV wanted to take control. So, he had his Minister of Finance, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, create the Compagnie des Indes (East India Company). Armenian dyers and fabric makers were brought into Marseille to share their skills with local producers. Originally the dyes were obtained from natural materials. Each colour in a design was applied with separate woodblock impressions. 

Les indiennes became all the rage at the French court. The new style was satirised by Molière in a production of his comedy Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. In this 1670 production, the playwright himself played the vulgar nouveau riche merchant M. Jourdain.  He was splendidly attired in a dressing gown made of the fabric – with the pattern printed upside-down. 

However, not everyone was happy.  The French silk and wool manufacturers suffered with the new, cheaper competition. As a result, several factories in Lyon were forced to close. In 1686, they successfully lobbied the government to stop the importation and production of les indiennes

Avignon to the rescue

So, no more colourful fabric?  Not exactly. The French who made their living from these wonderful materials were too clever for that.  Les indiennes manufacturers simply dodged the law by moving to Avignon. This lovely city belonged to the Vatican and was under Papal rather than French jurisdiction.  The ban only increased the enthusiasm of the public for these brightly coloured materials. 

Officially the ban lasted 73 years and was lifted in 1759.  Les indiennes took off again and were incredibly popular for the next century. Easy to wear, wash and maintain, they were traditionally used in Provence for household goods including tablecloths, bedspreads and clothing.

Women wore skirts, scarves and aprons, sometimes of different designs all at once, while men wore colourful waistcoats and kerchiefs.

Artisanal production was hit hard in the aftermath of Europe’s industrialisation. Because of this, many small companies closed down. But today les indiennes are more popular than ever in Provence. Many of the companies producing these iconic French tablecloths have a long and proud history.  

The tablecloths in our online shop are produced by a family owned business in Nice, Provence.  Opening their doors in 1933, for the last three generations, the company has been making authentic quality Provençal tablecloths and fabrics to delight locals and tourists alike. 

Choose your perfect tablecloth from our extensive range of French tablecloths.

We hope you enjoyed the History of French Tablecloths. Check out our Buying Guide to learn more about designs, sizes, fabric treatments and their care.

Warning: Beware of imitations.

Some companies copy the traditional Provencale designs and print them onto lower quality fabrics in Asian factories. Watch out for the words “French inspired” or the claim that the product is simply “imported”. Almost certainly it has been imported from China. Not what you were hoping for.

If you’re shopping for authentic French table linen, beware if the prices seem really cheap. It’s probably because they’re made in Asia with low quality fabric.

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