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Toile tales

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Posted: Saturday, May 17, 2003 8:20 am | Updated: 12:59 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

In an age of in-yourface advertising and rapid-fire TV images, there’s something comforting about toile.

If you’re not familiar with the term toile (pronounced "twal"), you probably know the look:

An allover line pattern typically depicting pastoral, historical or mythological themes, most often in red, black, mustard or blue printed on white or ivory cotton or linen.

The devotion to toile started with Marie Antoinette. But especially in the last three years, toile has taken off. Time magazine dubbed it "the new leopard," a reference to a recent trend in animal prints. Toile has starred on Paris runways. Trend-watchers have noted Katie Couric wearing toile. Martha Stewart owns capri pants made of the fabric. Toile makeup bags were among this year’s gifts to Academy Awards nominees.

Fashion has instigated the current enchantment with toile.

"All that we’ve seen in ready-to-wear has broadened the base," says Jackie Hirschaut, vice president of the American Furniture Manufacturers Association.

But nostalgia has nourished the new appetite. Original designs have been reproduced. Many patterns repeat historical events, including one that commemorates the first hot-air balloon ascent. Bucolic scenes of children on swings are pleasant escapes to simpler times.

Others tell stories. A pattern titled "The Four Seasons" depicts people dancing, harvesting wheat and riding in horse-drawn sleighs. That, along with a pattern titled "La Declaration," a predominantly floral design that shows a man declaring love for his lady, is among the most popular patterns produced by Pierre Deux French Country, which makes fabrics, furniture and accessories.

"Toiles are so popular now because people are seeking timeless, classic style," says Paula Berberian, a spokeswoman for Brewster Wallcovering Co.

And even though the drawings may be complex in terms of details in an etching, the simplicity of a two-color print appeals. So toile adds fine detail and color in subtle ways, without taking center stage in a room, according to Stacy Senior, a spokesperson for Thibaut Wallpaper & Fabrics, a company that has been producing toiles since 1886.

Although many toile patterns have an old-fashioned appeal because of their historic roots, some are being interpreted in fresh, nontraditional palettes, perhaps drawing a new audience of admirers.

"New colorations are beautiful," Hirschaut says, "and they keep the look current." Another reason for toile’s appeal, say experts, is that its patterns are gender neutral.

"Many couples have a hard time deciding on a pattern," Senior says. "Men have a fear of floral, and women often shy away from masculine plaids or paisleys. Toile is a compromising solution, as it adds texture and a type of architectural detail that is comfortable for both parties."

For a fabric that’s been around for more than 200 years, toile has enjoyed amazing mileage. Produced first in Ireland, then established in 1760 in factories in Jouy-en-Josas, a small village southwest of Paris, the fabric often is referred to as toile de Jouy (pronounced "joo-EE").

Originally produced by copper engravings in a single color, wooden blocks later made multiple colors possible. Usually printed on cotton or linen, toile designs also can be found on silk, which gives it a luxe sophistication. Even simple designs can become elegant, as Marie Antoinette lavishly demonstrated at the Palace of Versailles.

In fact, that dispels the notion that toile is a pattern reserved only for country casual styles. Toile can complement traditional design, where it’s often a choice for wallcoverings, draperies and upholstery. As an accent, it can even work in a contemporary setting.

Besides, toile adds instant aged charm. Because the designs often are based on antique samples, toile can create an elegant look in a living room or bring farmhouse charm to a kitchen, Senior says, thus "giving rooms character and personality."

If large amounts of toile are intimidating, try it in smaller doses. Toile can punch up a solid background. Toile lampshades, picture frames, photo albums and scrapbooks, baby blankets, pillows, chair covers, slipcovers, oven mitts and even doggie beds are some of the products available.

Patterns also have been adapted to dinnerware (known as transfer ware) and translated to wood and metal, on clocks, light switch plates and decoupage boxes. Toile even has appeared as pane inserts on dressers, vanities and armoires, sometimes silkscreened or hand-painted.

To introduce toile into your home, start with color. Besides true primaries — red, yellow and blue — you’ll find dozens of shades within those groups. Then there are secondary hues, including chocolate, amethyst and greens, from apple and blue -green to avocado.

Dinner plates with toile patterns might be a refreshing addition to the table. If you’re not sure about a five-piece place setting, consider a tureen or serving platter. If you’re still not convinced, try placemats, particularly fetching under plates in solid colors that key into the pattern hues.

Introducing a toile shower curtain in the bath will transform an all-white room. Another quick change is a collection of bedding. Some manufacturers, such as Pierre Frey for Yves Delorme, take the guesswork out of teaming toile with other patterns.

Like lovers of chintz, some aficionados, such as fashion designer Carolina Herrera, opt for the full-tilt effect, cloaking walls, windows and furniture in it. Her entire bedroom is swathed in a bucolic red on cream toile. For some, the effect is overwhelming.

Try teaming two different toiles. One especially engaging look is to use positive and negative patterns together — for example, black-on-white with white-on-black.

No matter what pattern you choose, you’re likely to suit a variety of furnishings in casual or formal rooms.

"The designers create a refined appearance that always looks fantastic," Senior says.

So fantastic, it seems, that hostesses may pay toile the ultimate compliment — by wearing it.


• Horchow: (800) 456-7000 or

• Pierre Deux French Country: (888) 743-7732 or

• Thibaut Wallpaper & Fabrics: (800) 223-0704

• Waverly: (800) 423-5881 or

• Colonial Williamsburg: (800) 446-9240 or www.williamsburg

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