french-treasures antique textiles Historical notes on French fabrics

The importation of silks from the East to Europe dates back to the days of the Roman Empire. The overland trade routes that spread from Asia to the European countries were a conduit for textiles, spices and other exotic goods. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Crusades and religious conquests of the Middle East spurred the flow of Eastern goods into France. The designs and colors of the Eastern yard goods were sources of inspiration to the fledgling French textile companies. During the next several centuries, the growth of the French textile industry was spurred on by demands of the wealthy in France and by orders for cloth from the king's court and from the papal court which was located in Avignon, France. By the mid-17th century, France was a major importer of foreign-produced cloths. Its own textile industry had grown, but was struggling to compete with goods produced in Italy and the Far East. During the 1680s, King Louis XIV, who wanted to produce a more favorable balance of trade for France, created new laws which were designed to decrease imports of foreign yard goods and to promote the French silk industry by improving the quality of goods produced and thereby, to increase the export of French textiles. These laws were designed to regulate and improve the quality of silks and other cloth produced in France. The new regulations delineated many of the technical aspects of silk production such as the exact fiber content, the number of permitted errors in any production run and the number of threads in the warp and weft. Furthermore, the laws defined the artisan jobs and divisions within the textile industry and also divided the industry between the various regions in France. The result was an increase in both the quality and the quantity of French silks.

Oddly enough, during the same era, a law designed to specifically protect the silk industry from competition was passed. Surprisingly, this law prohibited the manufacture or sale of printed cloths. Needless to say, many merchants found (illegal) ways to work around this restrictive ban which was finally repealed in 1759. From the date of the 1759 repeal until the first World War, the French textile industry produced some of the most glorious textile designs and motifs in the world with an unequaled confidence, inspiration and imagination. Imported floral cotton prints from India had become so popular in France by 1685 that the French silk-producing companies were suffering from a severe loss of business. Fearing permanent damage to the silk trade, the government, in 1686, instituted a ban on the production, importation and sale of all printed textiles. The ban was in force for almost 80 years until it was finally repealed in 1759. This ban also affected both the imported cotton prints and the domestically-produced copies of the Indian prints. The thriving French domestic textile industry that had been producing cotton printed fabrics, indiennes, was shut down. This proved to be fateful because the hundreds of French workers that had been employed in the printed cotton trade began to emigrate and took their expertise with them. Within a couple of decades, the European textile-printing industry was dominated by companies in England, Holland and Switzerland instead of France.

In France, the ban on printed textiles only spurred the public desire for them. The ensuing craze for printed cottons resulted in secret printing factories hidden in basements or churches and dramatically increased the smuggling of the goods through ports and unguarded borders. Heavy fines were levied for infractions of the law to little avail. Women caught wearing printed cotton clothing were disrobed and the dresses were burned on the spot! Any smuggled printed cottons that were confiscated by the government agents were either shredded or burned. In 1740, the ban was loosened slightly when the government decided to allow resist-dyed indigo fabrics to be produced. Finally, in November 1759, the ban and all restrictions on the production and importation of printed cottons were lifted. Immediately, textile-printing factories opened across France. The public passion and demand for the printed cotton textiles did not diminish even after they were again legal. The French companies soon regained international prominence. From 1760 to the twentieth century, the French textile industry produced incomparably beautiful printed fabrics.

If you would like to learn more about French textiles, here is a list of a few books that I find indispensable:

French Textiles - From 1760 to the Present by Mary Schoeser and Kathleen Dejardin, Lawrence King, 1991

Toile de Jouy - Printed Textiles in the Classic French Style by Melanie Riffel, Sophie Rouart and Marc Walter, Thames & Hudson, 2003

Textile Designs by Susan Meller and Joost Elffers, Harry N. Abrams, 1991

Printed French Fabrics - Toiles de Jouy by Josette Brédif, Rizzoli, 1989

Painted and Printed Fabrics by Henri Clouzot, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1927

Les Etoffes - Dictionnaire historique by Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier, Bernard Berthod and Martine Chavent-Fusaro, Les éditions de l'amateur, 1994 (French)

Piqué de Provence, collection by André-Jean Cabanel, Brunschwig & Fils, Edisud, 2000 (French)

Please contact me with any questions or comments. Email: