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The Story of Toile

Martha Stewart Living, May 1998

No other fabric evokes the past as beautifully as toile. This charming printed cotton can be found bearing images of everything from birds and flowers to historic events and exotic locales.

Although the designs can be complex, toile is the result of a relatively simple printing process. The earliest designs were created by hand, then engraved on copper plates, which were covered by a mordant, or fixative. The plates were used to print the design on fabric, which was then plunged into a dye bath; the dye would take only where the mordant had been absorbed by the fibers. Because the process involved immersion in dye, early toiles were printed in a single color -- rich turkey red, tobacco brown, indigo, or amethyst -- on a neutral ground. Multicolored toiles, created by printing on top of the dyed fabric with inked wood blocks, appeared in the early 19th century, and today most toiles are screen-printed -- but even with contemporary production methods, today's toile manufacturers still take their design cues from the past.

This collection of pillows, made from 2 yards of toile, adds a buoyant touch to a beige sofa. An elephant, a stag, a man with a crocodile, an ostrich, and a deer are all represented. Not all pieces of toile lend themselves to this sort of interpretation, but it's a great way to make the most of a remnant of fabric left over from another project.

Do You Know?
The word toile means "cloth" in French; later the fabric came to be known as toile de Jouy, after the highly successful factory at Jouy-en-Josas, near Versailles.