Today’s Toile: Artisans Retool a Classic Fabric

By Jane Dagmi | Updated Jun 20, 2012 1:13 PM

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Pierre Frey's "Les Travaux de la Manufacture" Toile

Though the word “toiles” conjures up visions of fabric dotted with romantic scenes of maidens, cherubs, pagodas, and military or fabled heroes, the actual translation is simply “cloth.” Toiles du Jouy originally referred to linen or cotton cloth manufactured in the French town of Jouy-en-Josas beginning in the 1760s. Located close to Versailles, the Oberkampf factory manufactured toiles for the royals. Deemed Manufacture Royale by Louis XVI and Legion of Honor by Napoleon, Oberkampf toiles were extremely popular.

In The Decoration of Houses (1897), 19th-century tastemaker and co-author Edith Wharton notes the 18th-century French transition from heavy dust-collecting silk brocades to washable, simpler toiles. She describes the pattern: “Absorbing the spirit of Chinese designs, the French designer blent mandarins and pagodas with Italian grottoes… and French landscapes.” She continues, “The little scenes were either connected by some decorative arabesque, or so designed that by their outline they formed a recurring pattern.” Toiles were often printed in one color on a neutral ground, but not exclusively.

Modern Toile Fabric

Sheila Bridges' Harlem Toile

While early toiles featured fully-dressed frolicking peasants, monumental architecture and historical events, this figurative storytelling medium continues to evolve, reflecting the passions, trends, and beliefs of the society which it decorates—from bikini-clad heroines and urban landmarks to everyday objects. Like “Harlem Toile De Jouy,” created by designer Shiela Bridges, which tells a rich yet satirical story about African American life through the often distorted media.

For even more modern interpretations, visit our Toiles Go Contemporary slideshow.