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Toile adds a special touch

By Staff
Jaima Brown , Special to the Enquirer
Toile, the subtly elegant printing technique that tells stories in engraving-like detail, traveled a fascinating history of its own to become the enduring favorite of designers, decorators and homeowners everywhere.
Toile, pronounced "twal," is an abbreviation of toile de Jouy. The name comes from Jouy-en-Josas, France, where the first plant to commercially produce this type of printing was established in 1760. The initial toile was a monotone, one-color print, rendered in intricate, engraving-like detail on a white or cream-colored background.
Typically, the images were scenes that told a story. Drawings might retell a myth about Roman gods, or chronicle ships' sailing adventures, or simply depict days in the life of a French farming family.
The triumph of toile as today's decorative darling is far from simple, however. When Christopher-Philippe Oberkampf opened a print shop in France in 1760, reverse images for toile prints were carved into wooden blocks. Ink was applied to the blocks and then transferred by hand to un-dyed cotton. Only the rich and the royal, including Louis XVI, could afford the results of this painstaking process.
Later, in a stunning example of industrial espionage, Oberkampf discovered in England the secrets of etching designs onto a copper-plate roller. He and his brothers wrote the directions for this process on cotton percale fabric, using an alum solution tinted with red dye, and then dipped the fabric in vinegar to render the writing invisible until after they crossed the Channel. By utilizing their stolen information, the Oberkampfs significantly expanded both their market and their fame. Napoleon himself bestowed on them the Legion of Honor.
Still later, in an unrelated but ironic twist of fate,
British troops destroyed Oberkampf's factory in Jouy-en-Josas. Brokenhearted, the printmaker died shortly afterwards.
Today, toile triumphs, but only the engraving-like quality of the printing method remains true to its original.
It is not uncommon for contemporary toiles to be printed in more than one color and appear on a colored background. The themes now encompass just about any subject that strikes a wallpaper or fabric designer's fancy.