Toile fabric is famous for the iconic and simplistic, monochromatic prints in blues, reds, and black on a cream-beige background. This recognizable fabric originated in France and was originally inspired by fabrics from India. These fabrics had gorgeous prints – very different from fabrics found in France at the time and influenced the origin of a fabric that is as popular centuries later as it was when it first made its appearance in France.
The History of Toile Fabric
In 1600 the East Indian Company was formed. The company was founded to rival the spice trade that was monopolized by Spain and Portugal at the time. The company traded in spices from South India, indigo, saltpeter, silk goods, and cotton. The cotton was printed with stunning animal and flower patterns, very different from anything available in Europe during this period. The fabric quickly became popular. So popular, in fact, that the local textile industry was suffering a significant loss.
To counter this, France placed a ban on cotton in 1686. During the ban, local textile makers lost the art of printing on cotton. In 1759 the ban was lifted. Christophe-Philippe Oberkampf was born to a German family during the cotton ban. He quickly became a skilled colorist and engraver for the cotton manufacturer Sieur Cottin and later for Sieur Tavanne.
In the year that the cotton ban was lifted, Oberkampf set up his own textile manufacturing company. The company was located in Jouy-en-Josas, near the Bièvre river. It was also close enough to reach the wealthy clientele in Versailles and Paris. Here toile de Jouy – today sometimes only known as toile fabric – was born.
Traditionally images printed to create toile fabric included floral patterns or simple and rustic scenes. The images often told a story depicting European myths or significant life events. There were also prints of monuments found in Paris, Rome, and even Egypt. The prints usually only feature one color, primarily black, red, or blue, printed on unbleached fabric.
By the 18th century, toile de Jouy (which translates to 'cloth from Jouy') had become highly fashionable. It was even a favorite of Marie-Antoinette and Empress Joséphine Bonaparte (wife of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte). The fabric was frequently used as curtains or wall and bed coverings.
Although Oberkampf's factory closed in the 1840s, the popularity of toile de Jouy has lasted through the centuries. Toile designs have made their way onto everything from wallpaper to dinnerware. They are often seen on the fabric used on chairs and couches and to make pillows. Toile fabric became widespread in the U.S. during the Colonial Era, made a comeback in the 1970s, and again in 2000. The fabric made it back into fashion in 2019 when it was featured by designers like Chloé, Oscar de la Renta, and Dior.
The modern fashion industry seems to favor simple and minimalist designs printed in blue. Interior design toile prints could include larger prints in purples, greens, browns, magentas, beiges, and greys. Still, the prints are always monochromatic – paying homage to the original French toile de Jouy fabrics.