An Introductory Level Course on the History, Material, Design, Sizing and Care of French Provençal Tablecloths.
Today we're going to give you a crash course in French Provençal tablecloths. So get out your notebook and sharpen your pencil, because class is in session!
The history of Provençal fabrics is long and "colorful," as it were. It began in the mid-17th century (circa 1650), when the Armenian immigrant community in Marseille began importing colorful printed cotton fabrics from India and Persia into Provence through the port of Marseille. In 1664 the Compagnie Française pour le Commerce des Indes Orientales (the French East India Company), founded by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, French Minister of Finance under Louis XIV, began importing them in large quantities and selling them to the French aristocracy. Very shortly thereafter (within about 5 years), the workers in Marseille had learned to manufacture these beautiful printed cotton fabrics themselves and began to create their own adaptations using traditional Provençal colors and motifs.
But no history of Provençal tablecloths would be complete without a fond mention of Joseph Marie Jacquard, an 18th century French inventor who developed a semi-automatic loom that made it commercially practical to weave extremely complex designs into fabrics. This innovation enabled the artisans of Provence to expand the tradition to include woven designs as well as printed designs. As an interesting side note, Jacquard's idea of using punched cards to automate mechanical processes was later used by Charles Babbage to design a mechanical calculating machine that is generally considered to be an early precursor to today's programmable computers. This idea was further refined and expanded upon by Alan Turing and others.
In terms of material, modern Provençal tablecloths are normally made either of Jacquard double-woven cotton or printed plain-woven cotton. In a Jacquard tablecloth the design is woven into the fabric. In a printed cotton tablecloth the design is printed onto the fabric. Because they are double-woven, the Jacquard tablecloths are thicker than the printed cotton tablecloths, but they are very soft and supple.
Most modern French Jacquard tablecloths are treated (not coated) with a Teflon based product that makes them resistant to stains and easy to get clean in the wash while allowing them to feel like natural cotton and to "drape" very nicely over the edges of a table. Jacquard tablecloths are quite elegant and are typically used on dining room tables.
Most printed cotton French tablecloths are available in either natural (uncoated) cotton or coated cotton. The coated models have a light acrylic coating on the "top" side that protects them from stains and makes them easy to wipe clean, so they almost never need to be put in the washing machine. Acrylic coated tablecloths are very practical for everyday use and are often used on kitchen, deck or patio tables.
Note: As you explore the exciting world of French tablecloths you may run across the term "French oilcloth". Oilcloth (toile cirée in French) was originally made from heavy cotton canvas or linen fabric that was repeatedly saturated with boiled linseed oil and dried. In the 1950s the original oilcloth tablecloths were replaced by synthetic versions made of vinyl. These vinyl tablecloths are still available and are still often marketed as “oilcloth tablecloths". For more information see our blog posts French Oilcloth vs Coated Cotton Tablecloths and PVC Free Tablecloths.
There are basically four kinds of designs that are used on French tablecloths: motif placé, all over*, rayure, and cadré.
* Yes, they really say "all over" in French, albeit with a French accent. Disturbingly, it's sometimes written as one word ("allover").
Motif placé (sometimes called dessin placé or simply placé) means "placed design". In a motif placé tablecloth the design is made to fit a certain size tablecloth exactly. Many motif placé tablecloths have a decorative design element in the center of the tablecloth and a set of concentric design elements around the edge that create a visual border that typically highlights the part of the tablecloth that hangs over the sides of the table. Because the design is made to fit a certain size, a motif placé tablecloth cannot be altered or adjusted to a custom size.
An all over tablecloth has a design element that is repeated uniformly over the entire surface of the tablecloth. The repeated design element can be a geometric shape or a decorative motif. Because the design pattern is repetitive, an all over tablecloth can sometimes be made or adjusted to a custom size.
Rayure means "stripe," and a rayure tablecloth has a striped design pattern. In Provençal designs the stripes are typically created by alternating a linearly repetitive decorative motif with a geometric pattern or a solid color. Striped tablecloths can also be made or adjusted to a custom size.
Cadré means "framed" or "bordered". A cadré tablecloth has a decorative border that is sewn onto the edge of the tablecloth.
See this post for more detailed information about French tablecloth designs.
When it comes to sizing up a tablecloth, it’s all about the “drop” – the length of the overhang. Drop length is largely a matter of personal taste, but for a table that’s used for sit-down dining you generally want a drop of between 8” and 15”. Longer drops are considered more formal, shorter drops are considered more casual (you will often see longer drops on a dining room table than on a kitchen table, for example). On a rectangular table ideally you want the drop on the ends of the table to be the same as the drop on the sides. In the real world they don’t have to be exactly the same, but you want them to be within a few inches of each other if at all possible.
As a point of reference, the drop on the red and brown tablecloth below is about 10.5”. The drop on the yellow and blue tablecloth is about 14.5”.
The best way to pick a tablecloth is to calculate your “ideal” tablecloth size and then pick a tablecloth that’s as close as possible to that size. To calculate your “ideal” tablecloth size:
- Decide what length “drop” you want (H).
- Measure your table. Yes, this means finding the measuring tape – we could even be talking about a trip to the basement here. If your table is round, measure it’s diameter (D). If it’s rectangular, oval or oblong, measure it’s length (L) and width (W). (Note: for oval and oblong tables, measure them at their longest and widest points).
- Calculate your ideal tablecloth size using one of the following formulas:
Ideal Tablecloth Diameter = D + 2H
Rectangular, Oval, or Oblong Tables
Ideal Tablecloth Length = L + 2H
Ideal Tablecloth Width = W + 2H
- Pick a tablecloth that’s as close as possible to your ideal tablecloth size. If in doubt, pick the bigger one.
Teflon-treated Jacquard tablecloths are normally machine-washed on a "warm" setting. They can be (a) tumbled-dried on a "less dry" setting, (b) hang-dried (e.g. over the shower curtain bar), (c) partially tumble-dried and then hang-dried, or (d) all of the above. They can be ironed on one or both sides prior to use if desired.
Uncoated cotton tablecloths can be machine-washed and tumble-dried and ironed on one or both sides if desired.
Acrylic-coated tablecloths can be wiped clean with a cloth or a sponge and a mild cleaning agent, and only need to be machine-washed rarely if ever. If necessary they can be machine-washed on a cold or warm setting and hang-dried (do not tumble-dry them in a machine). If desired they can be ironed on the uncoated side only before use.
See our Care and Feeding page for detailed care instructions.