The Fabrics of Provence – French Linen
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For many, Provence is the most irresistible part of France; it truly has everything, from snowcapped mountains of the southern alps to the plains of the Camargue, tiny fortified towns, precariously perched villages and great cities.  The senses are assaulted by the warmth, the food, the wine and the aroma of the herbs and plants.  It has attracted artists and recluses, the rich and the famous, and has seen the Greeks, the Romans and the Italians pass through and put down their roots.

Provence has its feet in the Mediterranean and its head in the Alps.  It is a palette of colour with its fields of lavender, herbs, poppies, sunflowers and its skies of brilliant blue, which are all reflected in the "indiennes aux Provence" - the fabrics of Provence.

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 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 Papa, not French, jurisdiction. Avignon's rue des Teinturiers is today a popular tourist haunt, bearing 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. 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, bedspreads, and items of clothing; women wore skirts, scarves and aprons, sometimes of different designs all at once; men sported waistcoats and kerchiefs. Today you will find the fabrics used for anything from potholders to stuffed toys.

Although now produced using modern manufacturing methods, the indiennes of Provence are more popular than ever.