Blocks without Boundaries
Indiaenne – a type of printed textiles manufactured in Europe between the 17th and 19th century resembling similar textiles originally made in India (hence the name) – triggered riots, convicted men to forced labor, enriched a region, seduced millions of women in France and worldwide, made the careers of some while destroying the future of others. Indienne, meaning that which comes from Eastern India, was known by various other names in French such as Madras, Pekin (Peking), Perse (Persia), Gougouran, Dames and Cisacs.
Genuine Indian hand block printed textiles were imported in France throughMarseille port in the early 17th century. These cotton fabric with their incredible dyeing- every cleaning seem to make the colors brighter caught the fancy of the public. Soon, traders were importing these brightly colored textiles from India and selling them at a high premium to the Rich and famous of France.
Soon, these bright, color-fast fabrics, then unknown, seduce customers in the greater Province of Languedoc to the Riveria. The region started distributing them throughout the country and he became the favorite fabrics for the next centuries, holding strong through several crises. So popular and desirable where these fabrics that the rich bourgeois snatched these fabrics from each others hand, creating a huge demand for Indian block printed textiles. Madame de Sévigne launched the fashion in the Court of Louis XIV, making it even more popular.
Dyers and fabric manufactures called Indienneurs started to reproduce these Indian textiles for the burgeoning local market. The Indienneurs, supported by Armenian traders and technicians with proven expertise, opened workshops in Arles, Avignon and Nimes. These workshops exported to Italy and Spain, and their production spread rapidly throughout France by the fare of Beaucaire. Gradually, the cheaper version of these block printed Indian textiles became so popular that the local silk and will manufactures felt threatened.
In 1664, King Louis XIV and his minister John-Baptist Colbert created ‘Compagnie francaise pour le commerce des Indes orientales’ (French East India Company), a commercial enterprise to compete with the English (later British) and Dutch East India companies in the East Indies, for trading in the eastern hemisphere and take control of the trade of Indian fabrics that were till then imported illegally. The Silk and wool manufacturers also successfully lobbied the government for a ban on the import and local production of please block printed textiles in 1686.
French printers unsuccessfully tried to is this the law in 1689, and their printing blocks were officially destroyed in the public square. In desperation, a few block printers moved to the Avignon, a people enclave controlled by the Vatican in South eastern France and hence outside the reach of French law. Other printers move to Switzerland and Germany as the French. The economic crisis had arrised due to ban, and had caused havoc, so it was soon announced that Marseille printers could produce ‘Indienne’ but only export to other countries. Since it was still for but into selling friends the repression became stronger.
Slowly and gradually the block printers reestablished their workshops and around 1754 their were 15 factories in Marseille, which produced these printed textiles. In 1759 the ban on selling domestically was lifted and once again the French customers could buy locally produced block printed textiles compared to heavily tax Indian imported printed textiles. ‘Indienne’ once again became the most fashionable wear around 1790.
In 1995, during my visit to south of France, I visited the archives of Souleiado- When the sun shines through the clouds after the rains- a company that managed to buy thousands of woodblocks from the closed printing workshops of 19th century France and used this huge collection to revive Indienne textiles.
Jean Jourdaw started the company now known as Souleiadoin tarascon around 1806 and his son Mathieu manage the company until 1882. Paul Veran Took over the charge to preserve and promote hand block printed textiles. He further collected the old blocks (close to 50 thousands) from other block printers who had stopped producing these textiles. When he died in 1916, Charles Henri Demery Took over the company as he was madly in love with printed textiles.
Finally, Demery gave this company to his nephew Charles who in 1939 created the international brand called “Souleiado.” His wife Helene help him to create fashionable dresses and around 1947 the first boutique was opened in St. Tropez. Until 1977, the company successfully hand printed the textiles along with mechanical printing. Later, it became less commercially viable to produce him block print to textiles just like in India. The company still has the largest collection of woodblocks and I was fortunate enough to have access to it.