Rouleaux Tissus Indiennes Souleiado Rcintasflores 1Rouleaux Tissus Indiennes Souleiado Rcintasflores 1
©Rouleaux Tissus Indiennes Souleiado Rcintasflores 1|Cintas-Flores R.

The textile road: meet our fashion designers and artisan textile producers

An historic textile importer and producer – and undeniable fashion influencer -, the story of Provence is closely tied to that of traditional textile crafts, fashion and haute couture.

TourDuration5 days
Places visited
Nîmes and Calvisson
From Arles to Valensole
From Haut-Verdon to Seillans
Stage 1Departing from Le GardNîmes denim and boutis

Are you familiar with the origin of denim jeans? Or should we say, Gênes de Nîmes? Said like that it doesn’t mean much – and yet! For it was the town of Nîmes, in the 16th century, that produced the very first cotton twill fabrics at the origin of the jeans we all know and love today. The word “denim” actually comes from “de Nîmes” (from Nîmes), while the word “jean” is derived from “Gênes” (Genoa), in Italy, through which merchandise from Nîmes transited on its way to the United States. Once there, it was Levi Strauss who, very successfully, manufactured the first denim jeans using Provence’s famous twill. Today, Ateliers de Nîmes continues to carry the torch of Nîmes’ ancient know-how, with the eco-friendly production of various denim items woven on a traditional loom. A few kilometres to the east of Nîmes, another unique tradition lives on: that of boutis quilting. This refined embroidery technique, characterized by its raised motifs, became an artisan speciality in Provence in the 18th and 19th centuries. La Maison du Boutis in Calvisson continues to share its age-old expertise through its museum-come-workshop, where you can learn all about boutis and enjoy a hands-on introduction to this traditional art.

Stage 2In Camargue and lavender countryChristian Lacroix & Jacquemus

In addition to being a hub of ancient textile know-how, Provence is the birthplace of such eminent fashion designers as Christian Lacroix and Simon Porte Jacquemus. The former, born in Arles, met with huge success from the late Eighties to the early 2000s. Deeply attached to his home town, Lacroix drew much of his inspiration from the South of France’s feisty character, as well as its history, colours and traditions. He was particularly fascinated by the ancient costumes of the women of Arles, which he described as “a feminine ideal, an ideal to be pursued, a quest, an eternal search”, in reference to the Arlesienne portrayed by author Alphonse Daudet. Simon Porte Jacquemus, born in Salon-de-Provence and renowned for his deliberately naive and sunny creations, epitomizes the new generation of fashion designers. Also deeply attached to the South of France and his Provencal origins, Jacquemus’s collections are fresh, sunny and colourful. Moreover, he has showcased them several times in his southern homeland: at the Mucem, the venue for his “Santons de Provence” show, in Calanque de Sormiou for “Le Gadjo” and in Valensole, where the models paraded amid purple-blue rows of lavender for the “Coup de Soleil” collection. His more recent “Le Papier” show was also staged in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, amid the immaculate white salt mountains of Salin-de-Giraud. So, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to think his next show will be in the region too, but where? The bets are on.

Stage 3Marseille PortFrom indienne prints to overalls

Provence’s wealth of traditional textile know-how is largely due to the area’s proximity to the Mediterranean Sea, through which goods and fabrics from the East transited in ancient times. Our third stage, the port of Marseille, was a foremost entry point for imports from Asia. In the 16th century, cotton fabrics printed with creative and colourful motifs, referred to as indiennes, first disembarked there. Marseille gradually mastered the indienne printing technique and became a specialist in the production of these printed cottons, highly coveted by the bourgeoisie and nobility at the time. However, in order to protect France’s great traditional textile industries – silk, wool and linen – indienne printed cotton production was banned from 1686 until… 1759! During this time, smuggling of the very-vogueish fabrics became widespread in Provence. The fashion finally died out and in the early 20th century, only one Provencal indienne manufacturer remained: Souleiado in Tarascon. The brand still exists today and continues to fly the flag of this ancient expertise with its magnificent Provencal fabrics. If you want to learn more about indienne cottons, the Souleiado museum welcomes visitors from April to October. Alternatively, you can enjoy a tour of the Art & History museum in Orange. In addition to indienne textiles, Marseille was the former port of entry for blue overalls imported from China. In the early 20th century, this workwear, reputed for its sturdiness and lightweight fabric, was adopted by the city’s dockers and went on to become their uniform as well as everyday wear. Today, the port workers’ attire is back in style, now worn as a simple, casual and brightly-coloured jacket.

Stage 4L’Isle-sur-la-SorgueThe wool industry

For this fourth stage, let’s paddle down the waters of the river Sorgue to discover the history of the wool industry in Vaucluse and, especially, in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. From the Middle Ages onwards, the power of the river Sorgue was exploited using many waterwheels, which were used to drive the local silk and wool mills. Gradually, the development of fulling mills in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue distinguished the town as the foremost wool manufacturing centre in Vaucluse. In the early 19th century, the Brun de Vian-Tiran factory installed its own fulling mill on the banks of the Sorgue and became a benchmark for the manufacture of wool sheets, blankets and rugs. Two centuries on, the family firm is still in operation and is the last remaining traditional wool factory in France. Heirs and forerunners alike, Pierre Brun and his son Jean-Louis Brun continue to uphold this ancient wool making know-how using time-honoured, traditional techniques, while enjoying the technical prowess offered by contemporary machinery. Today, the Brun de Vian-Tiran factory prides in handing down this fascinating local and family legacy through “La Filaventure”, a must-do interactive museum devoted to noble fibres, located in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.

Stage 5Upper Verdon to SeillansFrom wool to silk

Last but not least, it’s time to head to the Verdon high valley. Wool is an intrinsic part of this area’s history too. In the early 19th century, the valley was home to around twenty wool manufacturers. The wool production boom began in Saint-André-les-Alpes courtesy of André Honnorat, who founded the first factory there; it subsequently spread to the Upper Verdon and, especially, Beauvezer, which was the site of an impressive six factories at the time. Today, although the old cloth factories are not open to the public, you can enjoy a guided trail dotted with information panels, departing from Saint-André-les-Alpes. To wind up our tour, let’s head further south to the village of Seillans, where the focus was silk rather than wool. A former cotton factory, the Magnanerie de Seillans, founded at the end of the 19th century, breathed new life into the village through silkworm farming and silk production. However, the silk farm definitively closed its doors in 1930 and the vast building was abandoned for many years. Luckily, the local council has since partially converted it into a village hall, while the remainder is occupied by a guest house. The building has now been restored to its former splendour and still boasts many of its original features, including waxed concrete floors and exposed wood beams.