In This Article
Most of us associate toile with antique china or vintage wallpaper; a timeless, intricate pattern that’s steeped in history. But before it became a cottage-core designer’s dream, toile was printed on cotton fabric; in fact, the word (pronounced “twall”) literally means “cloth” in French. It’s been a low-key trend in fashion for at least three years, showing up everything from formal wear to flip flops, and is once again becoming a design darling for those seeking a vintage “grandmillennial” style.
What Is Toile?
Toile is a highly detailed decorative print, featuring repeating, monochromatic illustrations of pastoral scenes. Invented in the mid-18th century, it was inspired by the designs and prints found on Chinese porcelain, which often took its design cues from nature. Invented in 1760 and produced in the small French town of Jouy-in-Josas, the proper name for what we now know as toile is actually “Toile de Jouy,” or “fabric from Jouy.”
The History of Toile
Traditionally, toile was made with a single ink color, and printed upon a white background. Originally, toile was printed using black, blue, or red inks; as new dyes and pigments were developed in the 19th century, toile was produced in a wider array of colors, green being a particularly popular choice.
The person we have to thank for toile is Christophe-Philippe Oberkampf, a German man who came from a family of fabric dyers, and furthered his artistic education by travelling across Europe and working alongside specialized tradesmen. Oberkampf worked as an engraver before he returned to the fabric industry, etching highly detailed images and motifs into solid materials, like metal. It was this unique skill that gave him the inspiration, and know-how, to create a highly ornamental fabric that blurred the lines between cloth and art.
Merging his skills as a dyer, artist, and engraver, Oberkampf invented a method of printing fabric with engraved wooden boards, and found partners willing to finance a factory to mass produce it. Oberkampf opened his fabric factory in 1760, choosing to set up shop in Jouy-in-Josas because of its proximity to water. Located in the valley of the Bièvre river, the Toile de Jouy factory was a little over ten miles from Paris, and only four miles from the royal palace of Versailles.
The First Toile Prints
Oberkampf’s first printing panels were of pastoral scenes, rendered in breathtaking detail and printed in repeating patterns; by the time of his death in 1815, he and his partner designed 30,000 more. These panels were heavily influenced by the Rococo movement of the later Baroque period, which can be summed up as “the most extra era in history.” In Rococo, more is more; highly ornamental, full of flourishes, theatrically over-the-top, and utterly exquisite, to Rococo artists, architects, and designers, “too much” was not enough. Design and architecture in the Rococo style is notable for asymmetry, white and pastel colors, gilding, intricate moldings; one of the most spectacular Rococo creations were trompe-l'œil frescoes, which used highly realistic painting and forced perspective to create lifelike scenes that turned spaces into optical illusions.
Toile de Jouy quickly became a hit with the wealthiest Parisians, and soon found a fan in Marie Antoinette, the French queen whose tastes in fashion and design were heavily influential among Europe’s nobility. In 1785, Oberkampf introduced another one of his inventions that would go on to change the design world forever: the first machine for printing wallpaper.
In the late 18th-century and early 19th-century, Toile de Jouy was considered one of the most fashionable choices for clothing and interior design; because of its intricacy, quality, and the exceptional fabric dyes Oberkampf used, Toile de Jouy was not cheap, and became a status symbol amongst the moneyed classes.
Toile de Jouy has never truly gone out of style, but has surged in popularity multiple times since its heyday; it was rediscovered by designers during the Colonial Revival movement, and saw renewed interest in the 1970s, when the American Bicentennial inspired people to reexamine the design trends of the Colonial Era. Now, in the 2020s, it is once again on trend, being used in fashion, industrial design, and interiors to bring grand, old-fashioned luxury to the modern age.