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Mix, match fabrics to dress up room

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Ethnic fabrics on throw pillows lend visual interest and complement other patterns on bedroom ensemble.

Ethnic fabrics on throw pillows lend visual interest and complement other patterns on bedroom ensemble.

Scripps Howard News Service

Long before my scholarship to New York City's Fashion Institute of Technology and my first textile science course on the nitty-gritty of fiber and thread, I have been in love with fabrics. I can't get enough of the way different materials feel — the roughness of coarse linen, the deceptive softness of raw silk, the silkiness of fine cotton, the variety of textures in a velvet brocade — or the way patterns, colors and textures can be coordinated and combined to "tell a story" and change the mood and feel of a space.

I love putting together a room because of the way fabrics can play off each other — a textured neutral such as a taupe chenille on a sofa, for instance, paired with a vividly patterned brocade upholstered chair and an animal-print ottoman. Or the way you can "dress" a bed by mixing all different patterns — stripes, florals, prints, chenilles, embroidered or appliqued textiles — but with a common color theme.

I'll search for fabrics wherever I go, from the flea markets of Connecticut and New Mexico, to those around the world. One of my favorite memories is being with my sister in France and digging through bins of fabrics at a Paris flea market. My souvenirs from that trip included a bag full of found fabrics that have since been made into pillows, curtains and even a pieced quilt.

Following is a list of some of my favorites — fabric patterns that I find myself drawn to again and again. And even though the colors change as fashions dictate, these traditional patterns are tweaked to reflect new tastes and styles. And while and the textures are different as new materials and synthetics make their way into the marketplace, there is a consistency to what I find appealing and what I feel will never go out of style.

— Toile du Jouy, or toile. This is the now-generic name for fabric that originated in Jouy, France, and is identified by the printing of scenes — domestic, exotic, historic or fantastical —in a one-color process on linen and cotton. Today's toiles explore many themes — architectural styles to whimsically personified animals — and are printed in multiple colors instead of the traditional chocolate-brown, cherry-red, amethyst or indigo on a creamy background. Toiles excite my imagination, and it seems I can always find a place for a toile pattern in any of my rooms. I recently replaced a black-and white toile pattern on the slipper chairs at my kitchen table with a rich mustard-and-rust toile depicting a traditional French country scene.

— Paisleys. This is another fabric named for the town where it originated. A factory in Paisley, Scotland, began weaving the intricately patterned wool fabric based on Indian Kashmiri designs in the 18th century to satisfy the demands of a populace wanting the exotic, global look of the shawls worn by the lucky few tourists who had actually purchased the originals in India. My favorite paisleys are woven in deep rust, burgundy, greens and browns — earth tones — that seem to complement my other favorite fabric choices. My friend and designer Lynn von Kersting collects vintage paisley shawls, as I do, and uses them liberally as curtain valances, upholstery material and drapings over tables and backs of furniture.

— Ethnic fabrics and prints. Kilims, those brilliantly colored and patterned "flat" or pileless rugs woven in western Asia, make a great upholstery fabric for ottomans, stools and accent throw pillows. African fabrics such as asante, kuba, ikats and kente cloth reflect different tribal traditions. Although based on ancient patterns and techniques, they can add a modern, geometric element to a room. They are wonderful to coordinate with those more traditional European fabrics that I love, such as damasks, chintz and cambrics, for a timeless, eclectic and adventurous look. Ikats, a fabric that uses a resist dye technique similar to batik, tends to look fresh and modern when executed in brilliant color combinations such as blue and white. Kuba cloth, an applique on a coarsely woven natural fiber such as linen or hemp, is a rustic, geometric foil to smoother cottons and silks.

Seeing stacks and bolts and yard upon yard of colorful fabrics makes me feel just like a kid in a candy store. A visit to a fabric house or retail store is a great place to start for design inspiration, color choices and as a general starting point for decorating any room in your house.

Collect swatches, mix-and-match colors and patterns, ask others for their opinions if too many choices make you feel uncertain, and enjoy. I certainly do!


Chris Casson Madden, frequent contributor to Home & Garden Television, is also author of 16 books, including the newly released "New American Living Rooms," Clarkson Potter Publishers, $35.