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.
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.
A 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!
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!