The silk industry in Lyon dates back to the 15th century. King François 1ér granted Lyon a monopoly to produce silk in France and the city became the real capital of silk. By early 17th century there were more than 10,000 silk looms in the city and the technology of weaving silk had flourished. In the eighteen century, more than one third of Lyon’s population was involved, directly and indirectly, in silk production and commercialisation.
Although the French Revolution and its consequences almost ruined the city’s silk industry, it recovered by the early 1820’s with the beginning of industrialization and development of new manufacturing technologies, including the invention of the Jacquard loom (more about it below). Silk managed to compete, to some extent, with cheaper cotton and nylon that became mainstream fabrics.
But what caused the production to fall, and subsequently disappear, was an epidemic of silkworm diseases. The first diseases appeared in mid-19th century and lead to massive infections of both worms and the mulberry trees (this is what the silkworms eat). In the 20th century many farmers in France moved from labour-intensive silk production to other types of farming and factory work. China and Japan benefitted from this and regained their earlier role in silk manufacturing (currently China is the biggest producer globally).
If you are interested in understanding the role of silk industry in Lyon and the technology innovations that shaped it you have to visit the Musée des Tissus et des Arts decoratifs.
The current exhibition explores the history of Lyon’s silk and textile industry. Wall coverings, costumes and embroideries dating from the beginning of the 17th century to the end of the 19th century illustrate the decorative styles and
technology innovations. While most people have heard of jacquard, but not many know that Jacquard was actually a person: Joseph-Marie Jacquard lived across 18th and 19th century in Lyon. He developed the basics of the earliest programmable loom. It was used to manufacture complex textile patterns as brocade, damask and matelassé. The loom replaced a lengthy and labour-intensive process performed by waivers. The earlier manual technique allowed producing complex and colourful patterns but it was hardly efficient: only 10 cm of fabric was produced each day. The Jacquard loom allowed for faster and more efficient production of fabrics and made patterned fabric widely available.
Another place worth visiting in Lyon is the Atelier de Soierie. The atelier is one of the specialists of screen printing of silk, a technique also used to print the famous Hermès carré (silk square scarf). It’s open to public so you can just come in and ask to explain you the process of transforming a blank piece of silk into a colourful work of art.
The screen printing of silk is a very complex process. This manual technique, known as “impression à la Lyonaise”, dates back to the 19th century. It starts with a paper drawing and on its basis a silkscreen is then prepared.
The painters then cook the colours adding different substances, such as the guar gum, to make sure the colours stay in place once transferred into silk. The colours are applied to the fabric, one by one, through the silkscreen using a scraper. If a scarf has 20 colours, there will be 20 layers. For a design of 30 colours up to 600 hours of work are needed! The know-how is often transferred from generation to generation and each atelier has secrets that allow achieving the optimal quality.