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If the mention of toile fabrics conjures up bucolic scenes of cows, roosters, and Marie Antoinette at L’Hameau, think again. How else, for the price of a yard of fabric, can you enjoy subjects as rich as “The Vampires,” “The Monuments of Paris,” “Robinson Crusoe,” and “Don Quixote”?

In French, the word toile means “canvas or linen.” However, it’s almost synonymous with the fabric originally printed in the village of Jouy, southwest of Paris, near Versailles. In 1760, Christopher-Philippe Oberkampf established a cotton print factory in Jouy. Being an artist and a keen entrepreneur, he capitalized on the rapidly growing middle class interest in home furnishings. Historically, the French fabric industry was subsidized by the court, and its products were used for courtly interiors. Fine silks being cost prohibitive to the middle class, a cheaper alternative was needed. Oberkampf inspired by the cotton prints imported from India, eventually made the fabric a purely French invention.

The toiles by Oberkampf were always printed on a natural cotton, with only one color ink- red, blue, plum, or green. All of the original Jouy prints were marked on the selvage with the words bon-teint, meaning “fast dye.” The designs were printed by hand, using inked blocks. Another method using engraved copper plates is very similar to printmaking. The intricate details of the fabric designs truly make them works of art, available for a nominal price.

The subject matter vividly reflects the interests of the French consumers- love, literature, travel, royalty, music, mythology, and pastoral scenes. In a 1995 article in Antiques Magazine, James Bensasson-Janniere describes a unique example of toile use- a bed found with its original treatment in the western Pyrenees of France. Made more than 150 years ago, the hangings and spread are entirely of toile in a patchwork design. According to Bensasson-Janniere, who documented and researched the patterns, this set was surely made for the occasion of a wedding. Of the 27 different toile patterns used in the quilt, the majority deal with the themes of love and marriage. Some of the patterns used were “Psyche and Cupid,” “Pallas and Venus,” “The Offering of Love,” and the most often used”La noce de campagne” (a rural wedding”).

Document toile patterns (exact copies of historic patterns) can still be bought. For example, “The Monuments of Paris,” originally produced by the Oberkampf factory in 1818 can be bought today from the English company Marvic. It illustrates famous Paris monuments and the four French kings who commissioned them. Judy Stratten of the archive division of the New York fabric house of Brunschwig & Fils says her firm searches its own archives when looking for toiles to add to the line.

One pattern was added after the firm received a special commission by the Taft Museum in Ohio. The museum hoped to duplicate one of its own document toiles, Les sphinx medallions. Designed in the early 19th century by Jean-Baptiste Huet, one of the most famous artists at Jouy, this toile used motifs we associate with Napoleon and the Empire style (lyres, laurel wreaths, sphinxes, and Grecian figures). Because it was unique, Brunschwig added it to its line. Two of Brunschwig & Fils’ current toiles, “Bird and Thistle” and Bromley Hall” are document patterns from Winterthur.

Judy Stratten reminds us that not all toiles are French. England produced many, as did Ireland and Germany. Even within France, not all toiles are from Jouy, although that factory was the most famous. There were others in Nantes and Rouen.

So the next time you see a toile fabric, stop and examine the drawing. You may see part of French history, scenes from an opera, or characters from a favorite novel.

*Published in NFocus magazine June 1999.


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