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From bucolic scenes to ‘trailer trash,’ toile tells stories on cloth

Connecticut-based Michele Palmer, a self-described “fabric-aholic,” recently completed her second book on the fabric known as toile, a perennial favorite of designers and decorators. This time, Palmer offers an illustrated overview of American toile, which has undergone some fun and surprising developments in recent years.

A 1950s “Suburbia” toile shows kids with Hula Hoops, chatting neighbors and commuters waiting at a train station. There’s also a “Trailer Trash toile,” replete with broken couch, pickup truck and pink flamingos.

Q: What is toile, and where did it originate?

A: It’s basically scenic fabric. Sometimes I call it storybook fabric because it shows people and places. American toile follows the model of European toile, which usually featured pastoral scenes of peasants, a maypole, that sort of thing. The American equivalent might be a Grandma Moses scene of a farm.

There was a Dublin printer who invented this process of printing fabrics from engraved copperplates. That was revolutionary because previously fabric was printed from blocks, or the designs were woven in. The original toiles were like art engravings.

In the mid- to late-18th century, the Dublin printer brought the process to England. It became an instant hit and a status symbol to have fabric of this type. There was also a craze for chinoiserie at that time, and it became a popular style of toile. They used the same prints for dishes and fabric. In France it was known as “toile de Jouy,” after the city where the textile factory was located.

Q: Why did you decide to do an entire book on American toile?

A: When I did the first book, I set out to do American toile, but I realized that there wasn’t a lot. It really took another 10 years of collecting and looking and manufacturers producing more for me to have enough material. With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, many manufacturers who produce quilting fabrics did different fabrics relating to the Civil War.

Toile has also become a medium of expression for artists, and there are quite a few wallpaper companies that produce custom toile. Some restaurants have commissioned toiles reproducing neighborhood scenes.

Q: How did it develop?

A: The American Colonies were not allowed to import the machinery to make fabric, and they also weren’t allowed to import the people who knew how to do it. There was no toile during the Colonial period, except that Ben Franklin went to England as a kind of ambassador, and he brought back toile. He’d never seen anything like it.

Immediately after the Revolutionary War, England and France came out with toile about American heroes. They produced fabrics featuring George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and American Indians for themselves and the American market. It took a long time for this country to manufacture its own fabric. By the mid-19th century we had the capability, but at that time toile was not very popular, except for political campaigns. There was some toile produced for the 1876 centennial.

Q: What are some of the themes of American-made toile?

A: Many American toiles look back at history and American wars. “Gone With the Wind” – the book and the movie – made such an impact on culture that manufacturers started producing romantic scenes of plantations and idealized views of the South. They were the equivalent of romantic European toiles.

Cowboy movies and cowboy shows on TV inspired an obsession with Western themes and cowboy prints. Then there were the Grandma Moses farm scenes. They were very nostalgic.

Maritime themes also appear a lot in old European toiles and in American toile. I incorporated beach and water scenes in the maritime section of the book. In the leisure section, I’ve included five toiles inspired by Mark Twain’s stories, including “Huckleberry Finn.” Some are contemporary, some go back to the 1950s.

Q: I was surprised by all the polychrome toile.

A: People really think of toile as blue or red on a white background, and when it started a lot of it was blue, imitating transfer ware. During the Regency period, the Prince Regent built Brighton Palace using chinoiserie, and he had a lot of them created in polychrome. So there is a tradition of polychrome and it shows up in American toile.

Q: In the book, you talk about how people can now work with Internet companies to design their own fabrics. How does that work?

A: If you send in your own scenes, they will create the fabric for you. I’ve used some of them, including the “Trailer Trash toile,” in the book. One woman designed a toile of the tiny town of Le Roy, N.Y., and included vignettes of her father and where her husband proposed to her. (is) one of several companies that will create fabric for you based on your design.