Non-fiction

Toile Mixed Up: the globe-spanning story of an enduring texstyle.

Washington is in a cart with Lady Liberty, being pulled by leopards. Want to know why? Yeah, we all do.

Trans-Europe! The very term evokes the world’s grandest notions: the best Kraftwerk album! the least-morally ambiguous wars! the classiest and most exotic defiers of gender! And more!

Indeed the story of one of the most distinctive types of design is also an example of trans-European success. Without the collaborative powers of what is now the EU, we wouldn’t have the wonderful school of print known as toile de Jouy. (Ed Note: Of course since this collaboration happened well before there was a eurozone, we here at ToC will refrain from pointing to this as a reason that the EU should stay together. Do whatever you feel is best, guys.)

Even if you think you haven’t heard of toile de jouy, you’ve probably seen it: pastoral vignettes or just generally girly little scenes, usually printed on a white background. Think Marie Antoinette’s dining room set and you’re most of the way there.

These Keds feature a sort of modified toile de Jouy and are totally awesome.

In spite of its name and strong association to France, like most creative and wonderful European things, toile de Jouy is a by-product of colonization of the rest of the world, with a healthy dose of European exceptionalism for their own domestic industries.

Both the Dutch East India Company and British East India Company started importing Indian “chintz fabrics” way back in the early 17th Century. Initially these companies would buy fancy fabrics in India with silver and gold, then scoot on down to the Malay Islands (the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, East Malaysia, East Timor and Brunei) and exchange the fabric for spices, then sell the spices back in Europe. At one point–and this can only really be speculation–a sailor must’ve noticed that the British have terrible food that no amount of spices will help, and they began skipping the Malay Islands all together and sold the fabric in Europe.

A chintz fabric from late 16th century Pakistan. Looks woven, but is in fact a print.

Early newspapers called it the biggest thing to sweep Europe since the plague. By 1680 England, France and Holland were each importing a million pieces of chintz a year. The Indian cotton had it all: neat colors, designs and it was even washable. Plus it was printed with woodblocks by brown people far away, so one can surmise that it made the old silk weaving techniques, in comparison, look pretty expensive and labor intensive (a notion which would probably have King Ludd shitting in his handwoven pants).

Domestic textile industries, including the strong silk lobby, did the only logical thing: got the stuff outlawed by the government. In 1686 France outlawed chintz, and in 1700 England banned the importation and domestic manufacturing of printed fabrics. The British could, however, print fabrics for exports, which had the two-fold effect of making printed fabrics popular in American Colonies and leading to the aphorism “don’t get high on your own supply.”

In 1752, Irishman Francis Nixon dropped the a-bomb of fabric printing from the Drumcondra Printworks. Nixon swapped out the slow and limited woodblock method with the copperplate method that allowed for more detail, bigger prints and only one color. Nixon soon closed up his Irish shop and moved to England where he ran Nixon & Co., heralding an era of dominance for British cotton printing, largely because their only competition was the Dutch.

A copperplate print of the copperplate printing process. Before you pass out from metapoisoning, note how nice it is to see kids getting in on the fun.

Call it mass-manufacturing fever, but bans on printing on cotton were dropped faster than this metaphor. France dropped the ban in 1759 and within a year the game changer had arrived: I’m talking Oberkampf.

Beloved by kings, revolutionaries, emperors, but judging from this statue, probably not the ladies.

Like so many revolutionaries, Christophe-Philippe Oberkampf had been cooling his heels in Switzerland, working as a printer. With the end of the ban on printing in France, the German-born Oberkampf jumped at the chance and set up a factory south of Versailles in the hamlet of Jouy-en-Josas.  He began using the copperplate technique around 1770 and by 1783 was appointed by Louis XVI to be “royal manufacturer.” Marie Antoinette loved this stuff. It was during this era that copperplate printed textiles became known as “toile de Jouy,” meaning (quite creatively) “fabric from Jouy.” The name stuck, even as the French royalty didn’t.

The stigma of the king’s favor didn’t stop Oberkampf from being appointed the first mayor of Jouy-en-Josas, and enjoying popularity throughout the revolution and well into the Napoleonic era. Eventually things trailed off for Oberkampf; many speculate his death was really hard on him personally. But his factory gave a name to a style that would never totally go away. If Jouy-en-Josas enjoys a worldwide fame, it is due to Oberkampf and not this hideous sculpture.

Arman Arman's hilariously named "Long-Term Parking."

Here in America, the style has long been associated our revolutionary period, and it spikes in popularity whenever that era does. Thus in the 1930s, with the opening of Colonial Williamsburg, and also with the bicentennial in 1976.

An example of 1930s toile, depicting a slave in colonial times.

So there it is! An Indian style, brought over by the Dutch and English, developed by the Irish, named for a German’s factory in France  and purchased by America.

In summary, my curtains are totally badass.

So much prettier than the actual view out my window.

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4 thoughts on “Toile Mixed Up: the globe-spanning story of an enduring texstyle.

  1. Those curtains really are delightful, but I’m sure the actual view out the window (contemporary airships flying over eco-friendly wind turbines, unless I miss my guess) is just as nice.

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