A western European variety of chintz or printed calico textiles that originated in eighteenth-century France, indienne, the French word for Indian, began as imitations of printed fabrics that were imported from India in the early seventeenth century, popular for the lasting vibrancy of their colours. After European manufacturers began matching the quality of Indian cloth printing in the nineteenth century, indiennes were regarded as an independent textile distinct from Indian and English chintz. Like chintz, indienne fabric was used chiefly for upholstery, curtains and womens’ clothing.
Portuguese traders operating along the eastern and western African coasts in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries first introduced Indian chintz to Europe. European colonial powers did not yet dominate Asian and African markets, or the production of goods, at this time and thus the printed calico was a novelty fabric in great demand. The cloth was not only lighter, softer and more brightly coloured than the woolen fabric commonly used in Europe at the time, but was also inexpensive to produce and purchase. It became even more affordable after the French and British East India Companies took over the trade in the late eighteenth century. Indian chintz was thus used in Europe for a variety of clothing, from elaborate dresses to everyday skirts and undergarments. Hand-painted fabrics were the most expensive, while block-printed ones were more affordable for working-class buyers.
Historically, the international market for Indian chintz and printed calicoes stretched between Persia (now Iran and Iraq) and West Africa, with most intermediaries trading along the east African coast. Portuguese colonies in Africa, particularly present-day Mozambique and São Tomé and Príncipe, were key centres from which calico goods were exported to Europe. Responding to the demand for chintz textiles in Europe, French artisans in Marseilles — which would later become one of the main centres for indiennes — attempted to recreate the fabric in the mid-seventeenth century, but faced challenges in the dyeing process. This was partially resolved by a combination of notes on mordant and dye application brought over by Company agents in India like Georges Roques in 1678, and the employment of Armenian calico printers such as Jean Althen who developed garance, a madder root dye that became commonly used in indiennes.
However, by 1686, lobbying by the French wool industry led the royal council of Louis XVI to declare the first European ban on calicoes. Armenians were expelled from workers from Marseilles and other cities in 1687. While Britain would also restrict the import of cotton textiles through the Calico Acts of 1720 and 1721, the French prohibition was particularly harsh, stifling calico imports and the local production of Indiennes. It was, however, routinely flouted. Smugglers diverted international trade towards underground markets in France, and printers produced the fabric in Avignon (then under Papal jurisdiction), and Colmar and Mulhouse (then outside the borders of the kingdom of France). Another impediment to the sale of Indiennes was the African market’s mistrust of French imitations of Indian fabrics, though this would change with the colonisation of the continent and improvements in manufacturing. After the ban in France was lifted in 1759, dyeing techniques were perfected and local designs standardised. French artisans began to import plain cloth from India and West Asia to be printed in France, and the industry grew rapidly. Apart from those already mentioned, significant centres of Indienne production in France were Rouen, Dieppe, Paris, Bordeaux, Nantes and Limoges.
While indiennes and English chintz fabrics are very similar, and the terms are often used interchangeably, there remain some key differences. English chintz is glazed and thus has a sheen, while French indiennes retain the plain cloth’s original texture. Indiennes also use garance or red dye as a ground more often than indigo, whose production and trade was controlled by the British Crown. The Paisley motif is also less commonly used in French indiennes. Instead, print motifs typically include natural imagery from the French countryside, such as olive and lemon branches, vines, lavender sprigs and cicadas, usually paired with images of flowering shrubs. Sunflowers and mimosas, introduced to Europe from Asia and Africa around the same time as indiennes themselves, can also be found. While traditional indienne patterns consist of two-dimensional, undulating and uniformly spaced motifs, advancements in dyeing have allowed for more realistic imagery with shading and subtler colours to be printed on indiennes, although these have historically been less popular.
Today, Indiennes continue to have a significant market in the West, particularly as a fabric and design aesthetic reminiscent of the colonial period in South Asia.
Our website is currently undergoing maintenance and re-design, due to which we have had to take down some of our bibliographies. While these will be re-published shortly, you can request references for specific articles by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.