The tablecloths of Provence

If you want to become a French citizen, one of the requirements is to successfully complete an interview with an immigration officer who will ensure that you are fully integrated into the society here. You can be asked questions about history, geography, culture, values, government, current news and politics, and your daily life. A task that I see often mentioned is to name the symbols of France. According to the Livret du Citoyen (Citizen’s Booklet) that we are given to study, those should include the national anthem, the flag, and Marianne the statue of whom appears in every town hall. Additional responses could be the 14th of July, the official seal, the faisceau de licteur design that appears on the cover of passports, and even the rooster. While those seem to be official and easily recognized by anyone living here, you might get a different response if you asked a visitor to this country. Based on movies and personal experiences I bet that you would hear, “the Eiffel Tower, baguettes and croissants, wine and cheese, blue-and-white striped shirts and berets.” Let’s add one more to the list: the tablecloths of Provence.

Tablecloths and napkins

The Facebook group called “Everything French” published an article that started with this statement, “For many people, just the sight of these beautiful brightly coloured tablecloths with their distinctive patterns of olive branches, vines, sunflowers, lavender, lemons and cicadas will certainly trigger longings for the south of France”. It went on to say that while these brightly colored fabrics have become a symbol of Provence, they didn’t originate there.

It was in the 17th century, mainly through the port of Marseille that these cloths, known as indiennes, first arrived from India. They were popular because unlike what was available at the time in France, these textiles were lightweight, brightly colored, and colorfast and could be used for both furnishings and clothing. In an effort to control the market, King Louis XIV created the “East India Company” that brought in fabric makers and dyers from Armenia who shared their skills with the French. They used natural dyes and created the classic designs still seen today that were applied individually with woodblocks.

Papal palace Avignon

These indiennes grew wildly popular in the French royal court and playwright Molière satirized the garments in his comedy Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Although popular with the public, the manufacturers of wool and silk products saw their profits decline and in 1686 persuaded the government to ban the importation and even the local production of the indiennes.  In response, the indiennes producers moved their factories 100 kilometers (62 miles) away from Marseilles to Avignon that belonged to the Vatican, under Papal control and thus out of French jurisdiction.

The royal ban was lifted in 1759 and again these brightly colored fabrics could be seen everywhere. In homes they were used as tablecloths and bedspreads while women created skirts, scarves, and aprons and men wore vests and handkerchiefs. 

Olive tree detail

Like millions of other Americans, we like the city of Charleston, SC and whenever we visited there we always went to the City Market. One shop that we could never resist was La Provence where owner Marie-France displayed (and apparently still does) Provençal placemats, table runners, napkins, and of course, tablecloths. Official or not, for us, those will always be a symbol of France.

14 thoughts on “The tablecloths of Provence

  1. J’adore les indiennes, the paisleys and florals in particular. When I was a young mother in the 80s they were all the rage in Boston and only people with the very best taste used them in decorating 😉. There was a shop that carried only indienne lampshades, sofa pillows, etc. I’ve been trying to recall the name of it but I’m having a senior moment.

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  2. It was many years ago that we (both from The Netherlands) lived in Portland Oregon and I bought for my partner as a gift a beautiful thick yellow/red french table cloth. We cherished it but never found fitting use for it. Now 20 years later (while living in Ireland) we are preparing ourselves for a move to Carcassonne and for sure I know this tablecloth will finally be able to full-fill its potential.

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  3. Hi, I purchased a tablecloth of this same variety in a big market in Philadelphia many years ago when I went to ALA there. It is green and white mostly and has olives and olive branches on it. It is one of my favorites. Nice to know the history.

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