silk weaving industry in Lyon and lots of lovely silk bobbins!

The Silk Trade in Lyon – A tour of a Silk Weaving Workshop

The Silk Trade in Lyon – a brief history

The trade started initially under Francois I, however it wasn’t until 1536 that it started to become quite a thriving industry for Lyon. It was a busy industry for the town, with 15,000 looms, and 40% of the 100,000 citizens working in the industry.

Lyon didn’t just serve the local region, or even just France, with their silk. They made silk which the traders sold all over Europe. By the 18th Century, Lyon was the ‘capital city of silk’.

The French revolution saw the first decrease and demise of the industry in Lyon – nobility and clergy weren’t interest in silk whilst the revolution was going on!

The Croix Rousse

In 1812, the area we visited, Croix Rousse, became the silk area for the city. Interestingly, it took some time for the area to be included within Lyon. Whilst today it seems bizarre to think it wouldn’t have been included within the city limits.

It was in 1852 that the area became part of Lyon. And despite the rebellions of the previous years, this was something of a benefit to the area. At last they had water and gas like their neighbours in Lyon.

By 1890, the area had 40,000 looms, and a population of 40,000. The area was known as the area that produced quality fabrics – plain fabrics were created in the countryside around Lyon.

Modernisation of the industry

As with a lot of things, the way we produce various bits and bobs changes over time. With the introduction of power, handlooms were no different, and were replaced by electric ones between 1900 and 1920. Interestingly, whilst there aren’t many hand looms still around (we saw powered ones), the hand looms are still used today in restoration projects around France.

worked example of silk weaving


The silk weaving looms

The looms we saw use the ‘Jacquard’ mechanism. It was invented by Joseph-Marie Jacquard in 1801, and essentially was a mechanised way of lifting the warp threads to create the pattern (previously done by children pulling packs of threads). The design was punched onto a series of cards using graph paper to work out where to put the holes. The machine then lifted the cords as dictated by the card – if the needle hit a hole in the card, it would lift up the thread, if it just hit the card, nothing would happen.

lot of cards are needed to create a design. About 30 cards is one centimetre of fabric. And in a day, a weaver would typically weave five metres a day. It doesn’t sound like a lot in today’s language, but at the time, these people were working for up to twelve hours a day! Not an easy job by any stretch.

Part of the weavers job was to make sure all of the various bobbins had enough thread. And often this was keeping track of up to 48 bobbins at once!

woven silk trimmings


Mrs Letourneau’s Workshop

As mentioned earlier, whilst in Lyon we visited a workshop. The tour we went on was of the trimming workshop of Mrs Letourneau, and it is one of the last remaining authentic workshops in the area. Two of the looms haven’t moved since they were set up in the 19th Century!

Mrs Letourneau was one of the last weavers in the area, and made incredible weaved patterns on trimmings using silk and gold threads. She was incredibly well regarded, and supplied churches and the military with her beautiful work up until her retirement in 1978. But she didn’t completely retire – the city of Lyon wanted to destroy her workshop, but she (thankfully!) wanted it kept as a museum. In 1993 she finally ‘won’, and the museum we visited – Soierie Vivante, was opened.

Our tour of Mrs Letourneau’s silk weaving trimming workshop

Our actual tour was a little ‘odd’. There were a lot of people in the museum when we arrived, and we thought we were going to be part of quite a large group. After talking to one of the guides (in English!), we were booked into the tour. Then just as the tour was about to start, everyone left and it was just us!

So the tour started, but the guide refused to do the tour in English (despite having spoken English to us earlier), even though it was just us! So we didn’t get a lot out of the tour, and the knowledge we gained was from a little booklet we thankfully purchased in English. So it was an interesting tour for two people who can’t do not much more than order food and drink in French!

However, we did get to see the loom ‘in action’. I’m not sure if she warned us about the amount of noise it makes when you turn it on, but it isn’t a quiet machine!

This was the only tour of a workshop we attended. Had we visited a week earlier, we could have gone to Maison des Cunuts‘ tour (in English!), but we felt one tour in French was enough for one trip.

But, here are some photos for you to enjoy!

And trust me, you will never look at silk or fabric the same after you have seen the machines that make it!

historical silk weaving memrobilia
jacquard weaving machine
making trim on silk weaving loom
silk weaving loom
silk weaving studio example
so much silk!
silk weaving trim loom
wall of pattern cards

30 thoughts on “The Silk Trade in Lyon – A tour of a Silk Weaving Workshop”

    1. It was an interesting tour, and very interesting to see. Despite the language difficulties, I’m glad we did the tour so we could see the loom in action.

  1. When we were in France in February people only spoke French to us. I understand the French people are frightened for the future of their language these days as English/American is the universal language of choice. It remains to be seen what will become the common language of the EU post Brexit.
    Meantime what an interesting post, I have never seen silk being made and thoroughly enjoyed your tour.

    1. Oh dear Cathy! I do always feel a little backwards that as a native English speaker the only language I can speak is English, when so many other nationalities are bilingual. But I did find the experience a little odd. Regardless, it was a great experience and I’m glad I’ve seen it.

  2. Oh Cathrine, how rude! But it fits the kind of experiences I have had with the French. I cannot understand their point of view. Of course I would love it when everybody spoke Dutch. So much easier for me! But since that is not the case and good communication a huge bonus, we Dutch learn English from a very young age. And this does not mean that we ‘forget’ Dutch. It still is the language me and my husband use here at home in Germany. Oh well. Thank you very much for the many pictures from the silk weaving process. I did a museum survey once in Trowbridge, Wiltshire. And they had to run the big spinning Jenny’s and weaving machines for us so that we could see what they did and that they were in working order. The noise! And the dust. Unimaginable that people would have worked these machines day in and day out and that child labour was the norm. So grateful to be alive today!

    1. To be honest, that’s the first time we’ve encountered the ‘French’ attitude. But still, we did see it in action, even if we had no idea what was being said!
      You are very right about the noise and dust. And the ‘funny’ thing about the Jacquard machine is that parents didn’t like it, as what were their children going to do? So different to today.
      We are indeed lucky to be living today!

  3. I’ve not encountered that attitude in years – at the Gobelins factory in Paris there are tours advertised in both English and French, but not every day – but yes, there is an occasional obstinacy about speaking English. Compare with a tour of a place we visited in Norway, where the Norwegian guide separated us into groups and said everything multiple times in different languages!

  4. It was a fascinating tour, Catherine ~ thanks for taking us along! The red and gold jacquard cloth is beautiful. It must have been a long, noisy, smelly, dangerous workday for the workers over the centuries, especially the children.

  5. So interesting to see the Silk works . There used to be a Silk mill in Dartford..possibly Crayford in Kent ..I remember visiting oh about fifteen years ago now …but it might still be there . They used to do tours in small groups.
    Yes silk is just so beautiful !

    1. That is so close to where I’m living at the moment! I will have to look it up. I doubt there’s anything there now, but the history would be interesting.
      Silk is just beautiful isn’t it?!

  6. Very interesting post. We were in France a couple of years ago and everyone was very friendly and spoke some English, unlike when I was there many years before. A young waiter told me that the current generation realise they are dependant on tourists and don’t want to alienate them. But I can understand French people wanting to protect their language.

    1. Yes, I think it is an interesting debate. And being English speakers, we do take on an approach that is perhaps not sensitive to the native language speakers. It mustn’t be all the young with that approach though, as they were the ones not speaking English!

  7. What a great post and a intersting place to visit. I love the pics! Beautiful!. How sad that they wouldnt do a tour in English especially when they could speak it and you paid for the tour I am sure. Thats really to bad. Overall though. It looks like a beautiful intersting place.

    1. It was fascinating to visit, and I’m glad we did go on the tour. I’m sure we got more out of it than just walking through a museum, regardless of the language barrier!

    1. I’m so glad I was able to go and see this. It was so interesting to see how fabrics and ribbons we take for granted were made.

  8. Lovely photographs – some of those pieces of old equipment are like works of art in themselves.
    Living in a very rural part of France, not many people speak English. The choice in the local schools is between English and Spanish and most pick Spanish because we are close to the border here and lots of people have Spanish relatives. However, the large towns an hour away are very touristy and I often have to insist on speaking French (I need the practice!) to waiters and shop workers who want to practice their English on me. I’m surprised that Lyon isn’t the same.
    My French friends don’t like speaking English to a ‘real’ English speaker as they get very embarrassed in case their accent isn’t right. I say ‘welcome to my life’.
    English is creeping in to their language at a rate of knots though. If you pick up any woman’s magazine it is littered with phrases or words lifted from English.

  9. Dear Catherine, I work in Soierie Vivante and I, by chance, happen to read your article only today. I would like to explain to you that in Soierie Vivante, we have many voluteers and they are afraid to speak English for the tour, because they don’t know the technical words. Making a tour with demonstrations on the looms requires to them a lot of preparation, and when they are not prepared they can be frightened of being judged for their poor English.

    We have not scheduled visits in English and I understand that it can be “sad” that, depending on the guide and on the number of English-speakers in the tour, we can perform the tour in English.

    We are sorry for that, but we don’t receive enough visitors to plan an English tour every day. And we can not “force” the volunteers to do the tour in English if they don’t feel at ease with the language.

    Nevertheless we are very happy to read that you enjoyed to see the looms in action! They still work today 🙂

    Best regards,

    Hélène for Soierie Vivante

    1. Thanks for your comment Helene and for stopping by. I understand that not all your guides will feel comfortable with English, although they are considerably more proficient than what the majority of english speakers are with French. My husband and I are very accommodating for language differences – perhaps not everyone is as understanding as us. We value the museum and the time and effort that has gone into preserving you’re history. Thank you for enabling us to see it in action!

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