Subvert: to undermine the power and authority of an established norm.

Here’s a case in point.

The beauty of French Toile de Jouy fabric has been popular since the late 18th century – and this beautiful printed fabric is certainly one of my favourites.

With a classic aesthetic of olde-world pastoral scenes, vignettes of the French countryside, as well as references to European mythology, the word Toile is French for linen or cloth, made in the town of Jouy-en-Josas located close to Versailles.

These romantic, repeat patterns, are usually created in black, blue, or red printed onto an unbleached background – but were originally printed in Ireland before crossing over to France when German-born Christophe-Phillipe Oberkampf opened a factory to print the fabrics in Jouy-en-Josas in 1760.

The fabrics are often used for window treatments, furnishings, clothing, and bedding, but have also inspired china and wallpaper designs.

So how on earth do you subvert Toile?

Well, take a look at the work of American Embroidery Artist, Richard Saja, who mainly focuses on creating ‘interferences’ with the patterns printed on Toile by using a needle and thread.

Check out this YouTube video uploaded by WMHT.

There’s also a blog post written in 2015 by Julia Good for The Thread, that suggests that Richard looks at Toile as a clean slate, where his embroidery is used to help embellish, and subvert, the original story of the printed scene.

Toile is filled with dense areas of imagery where no single element is meant to stand out.  What Richard does is invert that idea by embellishing single motifs to create a whole new context – and they certainly stand out.

Now, that’s clever.

His work is cheeky and irreverent combining humour with a light-hearted yet sometimes macabre approach to the often serious practice of needlework.

Richard himself, calls it the holy trinity of colour, pattern, and texture.

He’s re-wiring that traditional imagery and narrative with colourful threads and his own wry and witty humour.

These fabrics often chronicle the bourgeois life of the middle classes depicting them dancing, sledding, picnicking, ballooning, boating, or working in fields or gardens – then Richard Saja comes along and changes all that.

It’s fabulous and it’s fun.

Suddenly these quiet, traditional scenes receive visitations by clowns, aliens, monsters, punk-rockers, people with mohawks, and werewolves.

Richrd’s long-held fascination with monsters and aliens – embodying his childhood passion for the freakish and the odd, has simply been adapted as his own personal iconography.

This idea of taking something traditional and well-known, then turning it on its head to create an almost new meaning, is worth exploring – new work doesn’t always have to be new, it can be based on something already well-established and well-known.

So, why not take something pretty, conservative, traditional, or well-established and think about how you can put a modern spin on it?

Amp it up – that’s exactly what Richard Saja’s done in his work.

It’s something to think about.


All views expressed are my own personal views and opinions, except where acknowledged information is included from other sources.

(Image Credit: By Velvetbrighton – Photo from Velvet Brighton website –, CC BY 3.0,