One of the prettiest, most evocative - and cheapest - souvenirs you can buy in Provence are the traditional fabrics known locally as “les indiennes”.
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Despite their name, they sing of the South of France, with sunflowers, olive branches, mimosa, vines, sprigs of lavender, lemons and even cigales, or cicadas (pictured top left), all in intense sun-drenched colours. There’s nothing quite like them to brighten up a home and they make superb gifts.
A Thumbnail History
These exotic textiles first started arriving in France from India in the early 17th century mainly via the port of Marseille.
Light and bright, in a vibrant - and, importantly, colour-fast - palette, the indiennes were an instant hit and, responding to demand, the French locals soon started producing their own version, even if it was originally much inferior.
Intriguingly, it was a playing card manufacturer, Benoît Ganteaume, and wood engraver, Jacques Baville, who first applied their card printing techiques to cloth.
The booming import trade didn't go unnoticed. 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. And Armenian dyers and fabric makers were brought into Marseille to share their skills with local producers.
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), in which the playwright himself played the vulgar nouveau riche merchant M. Jourdain in a dressing gown made of the fabric - with the pattern printed upside-down.
However French silk and wool manufacturers were threatened by the new, cheap competition and several factories in Lyon were forced to close down. They successfully lobbied the government to have the import and production of indiennes banned in 1686. (A similar chain of events happened in England with imported chintz.)
Smugglers soon filled the gap. And the indiennes manufacturers simply dodged the ban by moving to the Avignon area, which belonged to the Vatican and was under Papal, not French jurisdiction.
Avignon’s rue des Teinturiers, today a popular tourist haunt, bears testimony to that legacy (a teinturier is a fabric dyer). A statue of Jean Althen (1710-1774), an Armenian refugee who introduced garance (red madder-wort dye) into the area, paving the way for the production of les indiennes, can be seen in Avignon's Rocher des Doms park.
Officially the ban lasted 73 years. But when it was lifted in 1759, the indiennes took off again and reached a height of 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 for items of clothing.
Women wore skirts, scarves and aprons, sometimes of different designs all at once; men sported waistcoats and kerchiefs. Today you'll find the fabrics used for anything from potholders to stuffed toys.
Artisanal production was hit hard in the aftermath of Europe's industrialisation, and many small companies closed down. But today the indiennes are more popular than ever in Provence, even if they are now produced by modern manufacturing methods.
Where to See and Buy Les Indiennes
In the South of France the best-known place to see, learn about and buy indiennes is the Souleiado Museum. It is housed in a beautiful hôtel particulier dating back to the 15th century in Tarascon, roughly half-way between Avignon and Arles. Souleiado Museum, 39, rue Charles Demery, 13150 Tarascon. Tel: (+33) 4 90 91 50 11. Website for the Souleiado museum.
Established in 1806, Souleidao (the name in provençal apparently means ''a ray of sun shining through the clouds after a rain”) has itself weathered many storms. Manual production ceased here in 1977 and the business continues to struggle.
However, the museum commemorates Souleiado’s Golden Age, with exhibits on the production of indiennes as well as some fine examples of the cloths themselves (pictured above right: traditional costumes from one of the displays) and rooms devoted to terracotta, santibelli (statuettes of saints) and other provençal arts and crafts. There's also a shop, of course.
Slightly less expensive is the factory outlet for Olivades, which claims to be the last company manufacturing traditional fabrics in Provence. Pictured right: a tablecloth by Olivades, in a mouth-watering setting.
Note the street name! Chemin des Indienneurs, 13103 Saint Etienne du Grès. Tel: (+33) 4 90 49 18 04. Website for Olivades, Saint Etienne du Grès.
These shops all offer high-end versions of the indiennes, with designer fashions and accessories, often with a contemporary spin.
At the opposite end of the spectrum you can buy cheap and cheerful fabrics by the yard or made up into tablecloths in pretty much any of the regular farmers’ markets in Provence (even if they may well have been produced well outside the region, and even France itself). Pictured left: typical tablecloths from a local farmers' market.
A good place to find indiennes in Nîmes is Les Entrepôts Agniel, 39 rue Emile Jamais, 30900 Nîmes. Tel: (+33) 4 66 76 26 08. Website for Les Entrepôts Agniel.
In Marseille, one of the best sources is the market at Noailles, where two shops side-by-side on the rue de Rome sell an incredible array of every conceivable fabric.