What is a Toile?
A toile, if you haven’t come across the term before, is a prototype or mock up of a garment you want to make up. It’s a way of working out all the niggles and fit issues before having to cut into your beautiful and very lovely, expensive fabric.
But firstly I’d like to clear up a bit of confusion that seems to reign over this process and the various name given to it. Toile, Muslin, Calico these are all names used for pretty much the same thing, but also have other meanings too.
The name Calico is derived from Calicut, the European name for the Indian city of Kozhikode. When Dutch traders began to visit India in the 17th century they brought back Indian textiles, particularly a simple, cheap, plain weave cotton fabric block printed in multicoloured floral designs.
Calico is the name used in the UK to describe this type of plain, but unprinted, natural state cotton fabric. It can sometimes be the name used for a prototype version of a garment as well.
Calico in the US often means a plain cotton fabric that has a small floral printed design.
Muslin is the term used in the US and Canada for the same type of plain weave unprinted fabric as calico. But it is also the term given to a prototype garment.
In the UK Muslin is the name given to a lighter weight more open weave fabric. More like a gauze and often used to strain food (or in my case elderflower gin!)
A toile (pronounced twarhl) is the term used mainly in the UK, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. For the prototype version of a garment. This name originates from the type of fabric used, a rough, light-weight cotton canvas that was used to create the Toile de Jouy prints of the 1760’s. Toile is French for canvas. These were printed with small intricate woodblock designs, and they were an imitation of the Indian block print designs brought to Europe by Dutch traders.
So you can see how, although all these terms are different, they basically all relate to the same thing. It just appears that the particular name given to a plain, even weave cotton fabric can also be used to describe the prototype version of a garment depending on what part of the world you’re in. So whether it’s tomayto or tomarto, calico, toile or muslin they are all referring to creating a practice run of whatever garment you want to make.
To Toile or not to Toile
It’s a question I get asked quite often in our sewing workshops so I thought I would pose the question on social media too to see what other people think about “toile-ing up” or “making a muslin” as it’s known in the US.
The responses were really interesting. Of all the people that replied to my question 20% said they would rarely or never make a toile, 23% will sometimes make a toile depending on the pattern/fabric and 54% said they always make a toile.
So I thought I would go through my reasons for making a toile to see if they resonate with anyone else. Firstly I have to say that I rarely make up commercial sewing patterns either from the Big Four or other Indies. This is probably more to do with the fact that I have quite fixed ideas about what I want to make and wear and find it really hard to find that anywhere other than in my own head.
Why you should make a toile
Although I will always draw out what I want to make I often find that ideas will emerge as I’m making something up. So I will always make a toile with a new sewing pattern even if I’m working from a block I know works for fit and shape.
For example, if I want to add a frill to the hem of a Kate dress I will adapt an old toile to get the depth and proportion of the frill right in relation to the rest of the dress. I might only add the frill to the front part of the dress, but it gives me a better idea of how it will look.
I can record what I do
I take pictures, and lots of them, of the different stages of making up a pattern. If I’m using a particular process or technique I will photograph it as I go. So I can use this as a set of visual notes for when I make up another version or one to be used as a Final Pattern.
I also write on my toiles and make notes on them as to the alterations needed. “Add 1.5cm here” with a big arrow usually does the trick.
I can try out new processes
If I’m unsure as to the best way to do something I can give it a go. Because of my background working in industry I’m always looking at quicker and more efficient ways of sewing different processes. So I will often just mock up a particular section of a garment to experiment with the best way to complete it using a combination of calico and paper. Some of you mentioned ’tissue fitting’ using just the pattern pieces first and this can work really well. I did this with the front placket for the Imogen Top and eventually decided the most effective way was to sew the placket on from the wrong side and top stitch from the right side.
Voila! No hand sewing = quicker to make up.
I can get the fit just right
This is probably the most important, and the main reason by far, that the respondents to my question gave for making up their own toiles. If you happen to be a standard – not average – standard, size you will probably get away without having to alter much on the fit of most garments you make.
Pattern companies have to work with averages when it comes to calculating standardised sizes. Which means almost by definition most of us will not adhere to these. Therefore, unless you are pretty confident with a pattern already or if the pattern requires little or no fitting you will probably benefit from making up a practice run first.
In my case I know I have a fuller bust in proportion to my overall size. Most commercial pattern companies will use a standard B cup size for their patterns. I think this is incredibly outdated (don’t get me started!!) and one of the reasons the most common pattern adaptation is the Full Bust Adjustment.
The blocks we use for most of our patterns are a C cup. The styles of our sewing patterns are for the most part pretty roomy and include a lot of ease so a C cup is fine at the moment. This may well change. If our designs become slightly more fitted I will alter the blocks to reflect this (but this is a whole other story for another day!). You can browse our current pattern range here.
I know that I will have to make an FBA adaptation FBA adaptation to most of the patterns I make up. Luckily I have my own set of blocks that include this alteration already. So when I’m making up a new pattern I will usually try it out with my own blocks first before using our standard ones for the other samples.
I am also a combination of sizes, as are most people. So grading between sizes or crossing over the tramlines can be really useful too. I know I have a lower waist to hip ratio i.e. I have a bit of a tum. So will almost certainly have to go from one size on the hips to a large size on the waist. This is easy when you have a multi-sized pattern.
Is there a down-side to Toiles?
If you’ve already costed out the fabric to make a garment it can make it much more expensive if you have to factor in extra fabric to make up the toile. But I love the idea of using old duvet covers or curtains, this appeals to me and my ‘waste not want not’ kind of attitude. And it’s a good excuse to go trawling through a few charity shops.
I can also appreciate the frustration of just wanting to make it and wear it. And this is something I have had to overcome myself. I have tried really hard to reprogramme my brain from wanting things RIGHT NOW. This is not just for sewing but for other things in life too. I am beginning to find contentment in process as well as result.
Time sewing for myself is limited as I’m sure it is for others too, but as well as wanting quick results I’d also rather have something that I know will work for me, is what I want to wear and fits in with my life.
So overall, and in my humble opinion, I think a toile is probably worth doing. Ready to make your toile, get your calico here.
After all if something is worth doing it is worth doing well.
Happy toile making!