Though the French chopped off Marie Antoinette's head in 1793, they never stopped sharing her fondness for the story-telling cottons known as toile de Jouy. Today, more than 200 years later, the fabric's appeal is stronger than ever.
You might call toile a picture-perfect fabric," says San Francisco-based designer Stephen Shubel. "For something with that much punch, it's tremendously versatile because it's a one-color print on a white or cream ground. Even one or two chairs covered in toile can add life to a traditional room. On the other hand, you can use toile throughout a space without overwhelming it." Shubel owns a house in France and says his fondness for toile is probably fueled by the time he spends there. "In France, you see toile used in abundance, even in fine hotels," he says. "One reason is that the fabric is so quintessentially French; another is that it creates a welcoming mood." Shubel remembers one project where he covered the client's headboard, chairs, a screen, storage boxes and even the wife's pumps in toile.
Toile -- pronounced "twal" -- is a French word for cloth, and Jouy is for Jouy-en-Josas, a village southeast of Paris near Versailles, where French royalty and their courtiers were busy spending money in the 1700s. Christophe-Philippe Oberkampf started a textile factory in Jouy-en-Josas, initially making very fine floral designs using wood blocks that were applied to the fabric by hand. The designs were small and the printing process was time-consuming so that only royalty and the wealthy could afford the textiles.
In 1752, an Irishman named Francis Nixon started etching designs onto copperplate rollers and producing the large, detailed patterns now associated with toile from Dublin. His method was more cost-efficient than the French wood blocks, and toile became a huge success in Great Britain. In a daring attempt at industrial espionage, however, the Oberkampfs stole Nixon's invention, writing the instructions in invisible ink to smuggle across the English Channel. That information helped to escalate the Oberkampfs' business.
At its peak, 1,500 workers produced nearly 5,500 yards of fabric daily, and in 1783, King Louis XVI bestowed a royal supplier status on the Oberkampf family.
Early toiles depicted an idyllic country life: shepherds and milkmaids tending their flocks in bucolic meadows; peasants bringing in the harvest; and nobility picnicking or hunting. Such scenes of country life delighted Marie Antoinette, who used an abundance of toile at Petite Trianon, her private palace at Versailles. Hot-air balloons also interested Marie Antoinette, and these became a pattern as well. Other popular motifs included Roman and Greek mythology, ships, flowers, buildings and scenes of the Orient. Both French and English wallpaper manufacturers capitalized on the popularity of the fabric, and soon designers were coordinating toile wallpaper and textiles.
The American Revolution added more patterns to the selection. Europeans were fascinated with famous Americans like John Adams, Ben Franklin and George Washington and used their images to create toiles. By the 1820s, the United States was producing its own fabrics. In 1940, inspired by the movie "Gone With the Wind," manufacturers printed romantic Southern-style toiles. Even Mamie Eisenhower commissioned a design to honor her husband Ike's achievements during his presidency. It was produced in three colors, and she chose the red-on-cream for a dress for herself.
While most designers consider toile a traditional decorating element, with patterns from Brunschwig & Fils, Cowtan & Tout, Manuel Canovas, Scalamandre, Thibaut and Waverly, contemporary designs are also increasing in popularity. Companies like Studio Printworks produce beach scenes and scenes of U.S. cities (i.e., San Francisco, Tampa, Chicago). And, of course, digital technology now makes it possible for companies like Dream Scape to take photos of your eight-year-old on the soccer field or from your wedding and create a personalized toile.
It's no wonder toile is timeless.