The toil and joy of Toile de Jouy: Surface design technique

February 8, 2017

                                                              (Image source: Pinterest)


Have you ever found yourself in a quagmire where putting tongue to your thoughts seemed like the most difficult thing in the world? Well, it keeps happening to us all the time, especially when we are exposed to something awesome and pretty and divine. Our design team comprising the resourceful quasi-hobbit humans is perpetually in search of decorative textile arts. On one such quest, they tumbled on toile or what is also known to many as ‘toile de Jouy’.

For those of you who don’t know what toile de Jouy is, here is a glorious specimen of it –

                                                                  (Image source: Pinterest)


Toile has been around for centuries now. Its popularity, though in state of flux, carries on like a classic style that stands tall, come peaks or valleys. Just like the storied vignettes, the patterned fabric itself has emerged from a rich yarn.

Toile de Jouy which translates as cloth from Jouy, gets its name from a small village called Jouy-en-Josas. Located just a few kilometers away from France, this place is important to our narrative as this is where our protagonist, Christophe-Philippe Oberkampf birthed this marvel. So let us familiarize you with the premise of this eventful story.

With East India Company’s burgeoning presence in the market, it was only a matter of time for indigenous specialities from other countries to make their way into Europe. Indiennes or Indian cottons voyaged to France in the 16th century and people took instant shining to them as they ticked all the right boxes - they bore exotic flora and fauna prints, came in varied colors that didn’t fade easily, and most importantly were easy to maintain.

                                                                       (Image source: Pinterest)

The indiennes quickly usurped the spots held by national players like woolen and silk, something which obviously didn’t bode well for the future of local textile manufacturers. Sensing the potential damage it could wreak on local business, France announced a complete embargo on cotton thereby preventing its domestic production and importation. Like all banned things, cotton too, though officially prohibited, took to unofficial ways to satisfy its demand. It came to be produced surreptitiously until 1759, the year when the ban was revoked. Here is where our protagonist, Christophe-Philippe Oberkampf enters.

                                                                     (Image source: Pinterest)

Oberkampf, a budding colorist, and engraver of German descent, immigrated to Jouy-en-Josas from Switzerland with his brother. He knew a certain monsieur Tavanne, a gentleman whose financial wherewithal, and unending support enabled Oberkampf to set up his own factory in the village.

Jouy being a strategic location, afforded Oberkampf a slew of benefits - water of river Bièvre for dyeing, vast expanse of meadows for drying, and its close proximity to Versailles which presented him the opportunity of establishing lucrative business relationship with royals and rich.

                                                                     (Image source: Pinterest)

When Oberkampf and his coterie started with the manufacturing facility, it boasted nothing more than a printing press which they used as a piece of furniture to sleep on. But as luck would have it, Oberkampf’s new fabric patterns became a sensation sooner than he could have possibly imagined.

Oberkampf developed prints that were the zeitgeist of the moment, like for example, when he started off, people were still not over the floral prints which came with the Indiennes, so he continued printing exotic florals in different colors. As one trend du jour came to be supplanted by another, the prints on toiles too underwent adaptations so that it could appeal to current taste. Pastoral scenes, chinoiserie designs, mythological scenes, political messages, and scientific advancements featured on toiles, making them rich documentaries of transitioning trends and events.

                                                                     (Image source: Pinterest)

The same followed with printing methods. Initially, Oberkampf used wooden blocks to print motifs on cotton. He applied mordant on the blocks, a chemical used to affix the dyes to the fabric. After the mordant was printed onto the fabric, it would then be plunged into a dye bath to let it chemically react with salts. Colors would emerge from the areas covered with mordant. The fabric would be washed again and spread out in the meadows for bleaching in the sunlight until it looked like this -

                                                                      (Image source: Pinterest)

In 1770, Oberkampf borrowed a novel printing technology using copper plates from Ireland. This new printing technique allowed for wider designs, intricate shade work, fine lines, and variegated repeated patterns. While copperplate printing permitted only single color print, more colors would be added later using hand-painting or over-printing.

While Oberkampf collaborated with some of the most renowned artists and designers of his day, it was, however, his partnership with the multi-hyphenate Jean-Baptiste Huet that remains popular even to this day.

This textile marvel wasn’t just constricted to Europe but also reached other parts of the world and quickly became the most sought-after. Toile was introduced to the New World (America) by none other than Benjamin Franklin who was so smitten by the printed fabric that he managed to wiggle one artisan out of England despite the ban that prohibited local English artisans from traveling abroad.

This is quite a story, isn’t it?



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