The origins of Provençal fabrics go back to the 17th century. The "Compagnie des Indes Orientales" established by Colbert in 1664 imported linens made in India through the port of Marseille. The bright colors and patterns of these linens, called "Indiennes" became really popular among those who could afford them. Supported by the Catholic Church, French textile manufacturers were successful in pressuring the government in 1686 to impose a ban not only on imports but also on the production of these "outlandish" fabrics. When it was lifted in 1759, many local manufacturers, especially in the Provence, started production of the "Indiennes" in earnest. They incorporated French motifs into their design.
The production process was quite elaborate. First the linens needed to be whitened. Then the pattern was outlined using the stencil method. The bright colors were put on by female workers, the "Pinceauteuses". Natural dyes extracted from plants and minerals were used. Finally the cloth, now called the "Indienne" was washed and dried. Today modern production techniques are used, but the traditional patterns and colors are pretty much unchanged.
The Musée du Tissu Provençal of Souleiado in Tarascon (15km north of Arles) walks you through the history and production methods of Provençal fabrics.
There are of course a multitude of stores selling Provençal fabrics. They range from well known chains like Souleiado to local fabric stores. But let's not forget our Provençal markets. The most extensive collection of Provençal table linens and fabrics can be found on the markets in l'Isle sur la Sorgue (Sunday morning), Vaison-la-Romaine (Tuesday) and Carpentras (Friday) or the market in Aix en Provence (every day but in different locations). We like the collection of Provençal fabrics, especially table linens of two market stalls on Ave Général de Gaulle in Vaison-la-Romaine (near the La Farandole store). Also quite good is the collection of a market stall in Carpentras, normally located at the corner of Place du Général de Gaulle with Rue d'Inguimbert (Northwest corner of the Palais de Justice). If you spend 2 -3 weeks in the Provence - the minimum amount of time we recommend is 2 weeks anyway - you might be able to get table linens made to measure. Some basic French is required, have your measures ready in centimeters. It's excellent quality and you pay roughly 1/3 of what you would pay buying from importers in the US. No need to pay duties if they are for personal use.