Get Adobe Flash player
Beautifully Printed Antique French toile April A. Dilbeck T o many people, French textiles and toile are almost synonymous. Loosely translated “fabrics or textiles,” toile (pronounced twal) is a cotton or linen fabric that has been imprinted with a repeat design. Toile, however, did not originate in France, as most believe, but in India, which began producing cotton cloth in the first century A.D. Hand-carved wood blocks were used to imprint the designs, which were mainly of flowers, leaves and the tree of life. It wasn’t until the mid-1500s that India began exporting these fabrics to neighboring countries and the Far East. When the Indian textiles eventually arrived in Europe in the sixteenth century, they proved so popular with the French people that new factories quickly sprang up to copy the imported cotton designs. In fact, the cottons proved so popular that the country’s dominant manufacturers of silks and woolens pressured the king to place a ban on the cotton imports and the local factories producing them. Before the arrival of the Indian cottons, people of wealth had dressed in fine silks, satins and brocades, all of which were manufactured in France. The lower classes wore homespun, linen and wool. The new fabrics were a hit with everyone. Their novelty appealed to the rich while their low cost appealed to everyone else. And as a bonus, the picturesque toile could be hung on the walls in place of expensive tapestries. The king eventually relented to the pressure by the influential manufacturers and placed a ban on the imports and local productions. But its duration was brief because it provoked large-scale smuggling operations to satisfy the increasing demand. Even Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of Louis XV, bought smuggled goods with Detail of Décor de fleurs, genre perse; vers 1775. (Decorated with flowers in the Persian style.) Often referred to as les styles indiennes, this is a French interpretation of the original Indian imports. Printed in 1775. which to decorate her private quarters. The government read the “handwriting on the wall,” and lifted the ban in 1759. The Oberkampf factory French textile manufacturers quickly took advantage of the opportunity and soon factories opened up all over the country to produce toile, notably in Nantes, Bordeaux, Rouen, Mulhouse and Orange. The first factory to begin producing first-rate toile designs was established by a young 20-year old, Christophe-Philippe Oberkampf in 1760 in the small town of Jouy- Page 38 ◆ Antiques Journal ◆ July 2014 en-Josas near Versailles, from which came the familiar name Toile de Jouy (pronounced Twal duh Zhwee) which people eventually applied to all toile regardless of its origin. Oberkampf was not only adept at engraving, printing and dyeing, he also understood that to be successful and expand his business, he needed to hire good designers. His top designer was another young Frenchman, Jean-Baptiste Huet who remained 25 years with Oberkampf until his death in 1811. Like the Indian producers of printed cottons, Oberkampf and Huet used hand-carved woodblocks. In time these were replaced with copperplates, an invention of the English, who were also manufacturing their own cotton prints. Competition was intense for the young manufacturer. He had poured all his resources into the start-up factory, and it was rumored that he actually slept on his printing press because it was the only piece of furniture he owned. However, Oberkampf differentiated himself from his competitors through his highly figural designs and depictions of contemporary life in France. He also had a knack for predicting trends, and when fashions changed,