French toile fabric is known the world over for being the most "French-looking" French country fabric. A length of toile de Jouy fabric can lend even the most nondescript space a distinctly French 'air'.
Click a pic to BUY French toile fabric, or read on for a short history of Toile de Jouy ... and be prepared for a few surprises!
Such a success, in fact, that King Louis XIV (the 'Sun King') decided in 1686 to protect the French silk, wool, linen and hemp industries by banning the import, use, and reproduction of Indian calicos in France.
As a result, Western know-how of textile printing was first developed outside France: in Holland, Switzerland and England.
Alsace was another hotspot of fabric printing (even though it belonged to France at the time, but French law was never consistently enforced here). Below left is an early example of textile printing (probably) in Alsace.
... was not the only manufacturer of printed Indiennes in France, far from it. But it became the biggest and most successful one. The location was an excellent strategic choice: Right by the clean waters of the Bièvre river and only 3 miles down the road from their VIP customers, the royal court of Versailles.
For the first ten years, the factory used only wooden printing blocks to create the type of design that was most popular at the time: floral prints just like the ones that had previously come from India.
... was not invented in Jouy. The technique of copperplate printing onto fabric was first developed by Francis Nixon of Drumcondra, Ireland in 1752, and then practised at several textile printworks in England.
Printing with engraved copperplates had two big advantages:
The plates were much larger (ca. 30x40") than wood blocks (ca. 12x15.5"), so you could create wider, more varied repeat patterns;
The fine lines of etched copperplate made it possible to print sophisticated, finely shaded, naturalistic images onto fabric - the print quality was almost as good as copperplate prints on paper.
Copperplate printing onto fabric had one disadvantage:
You could only print monochrome (= single-color) prints. It was, of course, possible to add color by overprinting with a second or third block, and/or by filling color in with a paintbrush. This was done occasionally, but it was fiddly, time-consuming, and made the fabric much more expensive. Here's an example:
Monochromatic French Toile Fabric From Jouy-en-Josas
Oberkampf hired some of the best designers of his day, and chief among them was painter and engraver Jean-Baptiste Huet (1745-1811). Many of the toile de Jouy designs we know and love today were his creations. Below are a few examples of Toile de Jouy themes and designs.
You'll find similar - including the occasional authentic Huet design from the Oberkampf factory - in the online shop of my friend, . I can't recommend Wendy enough. She's a rare breed: a passionate, experienced textiles dealer with encyclopedic knowledge of French country fabric and very reasonable prices!
So here are some of the original French toile fabric designs that started a big trend, 250 years ago:
The 'country life'-themed toiles de Jouy show an idealised perspective of the countryside, with few hints at the backbreaking toil of the people who actually lived there.
On interconnected 'islands' floating on a white(ish) background, these French toile fabric designs display the imaginary pursuits of shepherds and shepherdesses, country folk herding cattle, fishing, hunting or celebrating, well-dressed couples in compromising situations - a fantasy 'holiday' countryside sprinkled with antique ruins.
Luxurious Chinese painted silk fabric and fine Chinese porcelain ("China") were highly desirable luxury goods in the 18th century. Intrigued by their exotic origin, artists copied images from Chinese porcelain and mixed them freely with French rococo decoration, creating "Chinoiserie" designs of European fancy and fascination with a faraway, mysterious culture.
"Scenes of Rome" displays vignettes of Roman street scenes against a backdrop of antique Roman ruins, with inset round or rectangular 'post card' views of ancient Roman buildings scattered over the fabric.
This toile is an example of the copper roller printing process, patented by Thomas Bell in England (1783) and introduced in Jouy-en-Josas in 1797. Here is another example:
This toile has its name from the octagonal cartouche that shows a woman selling winged cupids from a cage (what an utterly brilliant design idea :-) Very popular in the first two decades of the 19th century, this type of neo-classical design shows framed images against a geometric background.
At about 20" wide, the copper printing rolls were narrower than the copper print blocks, but you could get a whole length of fabric with an uninterrupted pattern out of them, and the printed fabric production at Oberkampf's factory increased by a factor of 30.
Christophe-Philippe Oberkampf successfully steered his enterprise (and up to 1500 employees) through the political cataclysms of his time.
In 1783, King Louis XVI of France declared the factory at Jouy a Manufacture Royale.
Four years later, Oberkampf received from King Louis XVI the title of squire as well as the right to use arms.
Two years after that, in 1789, the French Revolution began with the storming of the Bastille (a medieval fortress and prison in the center of Paris that represented royal authority). This event is commemorated (minus the bloodshed) in the French toile fabric pictured above.
What happened to Oberkampf, royal manufacturer, only 15 miles away from the power center of France, during the French Revolution? He became mayor of Jouy-en-Josas in 1790 and continued to produce French toile fabric, while King Louis XVI was guillotined by the revolutionaries in January 1793.
At the same time, Napoleon began his rise to power. He crowned himself 'Emperor of the French' in 1804. Then, in 1806, he visited the printworks at Jouy-en-Josas and awarded Oberkampf the Légion d'honneur, the highest decoration in France. Way to go!
Toile de Jouy literally means "cloth from [the town of] Jouy". So when we talk about "French toile fabric", what we're actually saying is 'French fabric fabric'. However, it's not quite as daft as it sounds. The meaning of "Toile de Jouy" has both expanded and contracted a little over the past 250 years.
Expanded:Toile de Jouy does not have to be made in Jouy (or in France, for that matter). The Oberkampf family never trademarked the term, and the Oberkampf factory closed its doors forever in 1843.
Contracted: 'French Toile Fabric' has come to mean a monochrome, copperplate-style printed fabric that is patterned with isolated motifs or scenes, usually on a light (white, cream or écru) ground. "French Toile Fabric" no longer generally includes polychrome, allover floral designs (Indiennes), even though these designs formed a large part of the Oberkampf factory's output, long after the introduction of copperplate printing.
To the scholarly minded, I'd like to recommend three publications that are freely accessible and cost nothing to use.
Gillian Moss, Printed textiles 1760-1860, in the collection of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, the Smithsonian Institutions National Museum of Design. Smithsonian Institution / Cooper-Hewitt Museum, 1987 (ISBN-10: 0910503575) This skinny, out-of-print booklet is occasionally offered for sale on Amazon. You can also read it free online at archive.org. It comes with an excellent bibliography.
The Musee de la Toile de Jouy in Jouy-en-Josas has a six-page Museum Press Kit that you can download from this page. Well worth reading.
Another great place to forage for knowledge are museum websites. French toile fabric is collected by museums all over the world, and their prized possessions are usually presented with a motherlode of information. My fave: the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
Here's a selection of books currently available at Amazon.com:
Get Decorating Tips & Buy French Toile Fabric Here:
Neutral Color Schemes - The
Book: Learn about using neutral color palettes with your French toile fabric (or anywhere else, for that matter) Understand what makes neutral color schemes look their best, and what happens when you inject 'real' color into a neutral color palette.
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