Key visual of the exhibition "Indiennes

Indiennes. Material for a thousand stories

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In the 17th century indiennes – printed and painted cotton fabrics from India – became a popular commodity in Europe. Western manufacturers, including scores of Swiss companies, started producing their own versions of these precious items and very soon indiennes were everywhere. The exhibition at the National Museum tells the story of the production of these textiles, discusses colonial heritage and travels the trade routes between India, Europe and Switzerland. Very worth seeing are the many sumptuous fabrics, including valuable works on loan from Switzerland and abroad.

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Material for a Thousand Stories

140 pages, app. 100 mostly coloured images, hardback, 20 x 29.5 cm

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englisch 978-3-85616-893-3
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Publication on the exhibition "Indiennes


Indiennes. Material for a thousand stories

National Museum Zurich | 30.8.2019 - 19.1.2020
published on 28.8.2019

In the 17th century, indiennes – printed and painted cotton fabrics from India – became a popular commodity in Europe. The new temporary exhibition at the National Museum displays a number of these magnificent fabrics, tells the story of the textiles’ production, explores their colonial heritage and travels the trade routes between India, Europe and Switzerland.

Until well into the last century, cotton was one of the most lucrative commodities in the world. The plant, which grows only in tropical and subtropical regions, was used to produce fabrics which, along with raw cotton, became a major trade product. India played a key role: since pre-Christian times, dyeing and printing techniques had been developed there which for a long time remained inaccessible, and were the paradigm for textile printing in Asia and Europe.

Indian fabrics with unusual motifs, later referred to as indiennes, started to reach Europe from the 16th century. In the 17th century savvy business professionals copied these patterned fabrics, and the following century saw an explosion of interest in them. The fabrics were used for clothing, curtains and wallpaper or upholstery for chairs and sofas in the homes of society’s upper echelons. The new fabrics were so successful that France closed its borders to protect its domestic silk production. This opened up new opportunities for Switzerland, and soon Swiss firms were heavily involved in trading in the cotton fabrics.

With the industrial revolution in the early 19th century, Europeans were able to start producing cotton fabrics much more cheaply. As a result, the flow of trade reversed: India exported cotton as a raw material and at the same time imported cheaper cotton fabrics, throwing its once thriving domestic industry into decline. Small-scale producers lost their livelihoods; poverty and hunger were widespread. Bombay, however, became the centre of the cotton trade, and a separate, rapidly booming textile industry was established. The Swiss trading company Gebrüder Volkart, which would become one of the world’s largest cotton exporters in the late 19th century, established its first branch in Bombay in 1851.

But it was not only businesspeople from Switzerland who were finding their way to the subcontinent at that time. Protestant missionary society the Basel Mission, founded in 1815, sent its missionaries to convert the Indians, who were mostly Hindus. The welfare organisations, hospitals and schools the missionaries set up also had to be financed. Money was brought in with brickworks, printing presses and weaving mills, but at the same time there was fierce debate as to whether it was permissible to generate earnings with the mission.

In the 20th century, cotton again took on a new significance in India. From 1930, hand-spun and hand-woven cotton, known as khadi, became a symbol of India’s independence movement and the trademark of Mahatma Gandhi. Swiss press photographer Walter Bosshard was there, and captured the moment with his camera. His 1930 photo essay shows Gandhi spinning cotton by hand – an early behind-the-scenes glimpse of celebrity homelife. The photos were seen around the world.

The exhibition at the National Museum Zurich presents selected Indian and European fabrics, including beautiful items on loan from within Switzerland and abroad. It also examines how Swiss companies were tied up in the trade in ‘white gold’, as these highly profitable fabrics were referred to. It’s a story with numerous interwoven threads – an example of how Swiss history is always global history as well.


Indienne fabric with ‘tree of life’ motif, probably Neuchâtel, around 1800

The French king banned the indienne industry in France from 1686 to protect the country’s own silk industry. This benefited Switzerland, where Huguenots opened important indienne factories.

Swiss National Museum, former Petitcol Collection

‘Four Parts of the World’ textile, from the Oberkampf factory in Jouy, around 1785

Christophe-Philipp Oberkampf ran the most celebrated indienne factory in Jouy. The management was made up of Swiss employees.

Swiss National Museum, former Petitcol Collection

Wall hanging (palampore) from the Coromandel Coast, India, around 1700-1750

Inspired by wall hangings at the courts of Indian rulers, the Portuguese and Dutch commissioned textiles featuring their own portraits.

Swiss National Museum, former Petitcol Collection

Fabric from the Soehnée l’Aîné & Cie factory in Munster, around 1799

Alsace fabric printing started in Mulhouse in 1746. There were close links with Swiss fabric printing factories.

Swiss National Museum, former Petitcol Collection

Wall hanging (palampore) with tree of life from the Coromandel Coast, India, around 1740

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the tree of life motif was among the most common depictions on indiennes for export to Europe.

Rainer Wolfsberger, courtesy of Rietberg Museum

Cotton plant

In India, there is evidence of cotton for the period around 2600-1900 BC. It grows only in tropical and subtropical areas – particularly in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

Omar Lemke, 2018, IIa 6466, Museum of Cultures, Basel, all rights reserved

Mountain of cotton in Khamgaon, Central India, approx. 1948

Cotton was stockpiled in Central India, transported to the coast, shipped and processed in Europe. The firm Volkart traded in Indian cotton, but from the 1930s it suffered heavy losses as a result of the global economic crisis and the Indian independence movement.

Ernst Würgler, former operations engineer at Volkart. Provided by Madeleine Gerber-Würgler, Winterthur

Weaving mill in Kozhikode (Calicut), Kerala, late 19th century.

The Basel Mission not only founded schools and hospitals in India, but also set up weaving mills and brickworks, employing the converted Indians.

Archive of the Basel Mission, Basel (QU-30.016.0045)

Volkart tag, approx. 1920

The trading company Gebr. Volkart, founded in 1851, grew in the late 19th century to be one of the largest merchant houses in the world. During that time, Volkart traded almost exclusively in cotton.

Municipal Archives, Winterthur Sign.-No Dept 42/1971

Household with Indian staff, approx. 1871

The wives of European officials, missionaries and traders in British India maintained the colonial lifestyle. That included running the household with the help of numerous Indian servants

Sign.-No Dept 42/1809, Municipal Archives, Winterthur

Indiennes. Material for a thousand stories

A view of the exhibition.

Swiss National Museum

Indiennes. Material for a thousand stories

A view of the exhibition.

Swiss National Museum

Swiss National Museum press contact

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Archiv der Basler Mission, Basel
Historisches Museum Basel
Museum der Kulturen Basel
Schweizerische Nationalbibliothek, Bern
Galerie m Bochum
Musées d’art et d’histoire, Ville de Genève
Museum des Landes Glarus
Nationaal Museum Van Wereldculturen, Holland
The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
The British Library, London
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Musée de l’Impression sur Etoffes, Mulhouse
Gemeinde Poschiavo/Museo Poschiavino: Sammlung Christen-Dorizzi, Poschiavo
Altes Archiv Gemeinde Saanen
Glarner Wirtschaftsarchiv, Schwanden
Club zur Geduld, Winterthur
Sammlung Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur
Stadtarchiv Winterthur, Firmenarchiv Gebrüder Volkart
Archiv für Zeitgeschichte ETH Zürich
Museum Rietberg
Völkerkundemuseum der Universität Zürich
Schweizer Finanzmuseum, Zürich
Privatbesitz Familie Imhoof-Peter
Privatbesitz Verena Keller-Gamper
Privatbesitz Marie-Louise Peter
Privatbesitz J. &. J.H. Streiff Erben

Exhibition imprint

Overall management   Andreas Spillmann
Project director and curator of the exhibition   Pascale Meyer
Project coordinator   Regula Moser
Scientific collaboration   Noëmi Crain Merz
Curators of the textile collection   Andrea Franzen, Joya Indermühle
Internship and scientific collaboration   Michael Brunner
Scientific consultancy   Prof. Dr. Christof Dejung, Prof. Dr. Harald Fischer-Tiné, Prof. Dr. Angelika Malinar
Exhibition design   Alex Harb
Graphics   Selina Locher, Valentin Pauwels und Andreas Hidber, accent graphe, Basel
Marketing and advertising   Andrej Abplanalp, Alexander Rechsteiner, Carole Neuenschwander, Anna-Britta Maag, Sebastiano Mereu
Public relations   Andrej Abplanalp, Sebastiano Mereu, Alex Rechsteiner
Audioguide   Texetera GmbH, Erik Thurnherr
Technical management   Debbie Sledsens, Mike Zaugg
Exhibition installation   Bachir Ezzerari, Marc Hägeli, Mike Roder, David Schwitter
Preparation and mounting of exhibits   Nikkibarla Calonder, Anna Jurt, Elisabeth Kleine, Iona Leroy, Claudia Merfert, Françoise Michel, Elke Mürau, Carolin Muschel
Logistics of objects   Christian Affentranger, David Blazquez, Reto Hegetschweiler, Simon d’Hollosy
Loans   Maya Jucker, Angela Zeier
Cultural services and museum education   Stefanie Bittmann, Lisa Engi, Maria Iseli, Severin Marty
IT | Web   Thomas Bucher, flying koenig, Pasquale Pollastro, Danilo Rüttimann, René Vogel
Translations   Laurence Neuffer, Nigel Stephenson, Tradukas
Maps   Maps & More, Karoline Kostka & Hans Hortig, Zürich