Théorie de Tissage: A Remarkable Record of Early 20th-Century Silk Weaving
Fashion is everywhere, but how often do we consider the actual manufacturing techniques of the fabrics that we wear and with which we furnish our homes? How and by whom are they designed and produced, which technologies make them possible, and what connects them with other aspects of modern life? The complexity of these questions was thrown into sharp relief when an unusual and beautiful item came into our hands – a detailed manuscript record of the methods for producing silk fabric in the French city Lyon during the 1920s.
Lyon became a major centre for silk weaving during the 16th century, when Francis I granted the city a monopoly on the industry. During the next hundred years it became the European leader in silk production, encompassing all aspects of the trade including silkworm agriculture, spinning, dyeing, weaving, and textile design. Prior to the Industrial Revolution the city had the highest concentration of workers in France, with an estimated 15,000 people involved in the silk industry by the end of the 18th century. The introduction of new machines, such as the Jacquard loom, caused great social upheaval, but the industry survived and prospered, so much that in 1884 a school, the École de Tissage, was established solely to teach workers the complex skills vital to the production of silk fabrics.
The École first offered a basic day-time course for teenagers and a night school for factory workers and foremen, and then expanded to include courses in industrial design, machine embroidery, and machine maintenance. By 1914 it had 500 students, and that number had more than doubled in 1926-27, the year it was amalgamated with l’École des Beaux-Arts de Lyon.
This manuscript, compiled around 1920, is a highly detailed study of the theory and practice of weaving that was probably produced by a student at the École de Tissage, possibly as a type of dissertation. We know of similar manuscripts, some held in the municipal collections at Lyon, but are not aware of any as extensive as this – 388 pages in a regular and highly-legible hand, including many detailed technical diagrams and 88 mounted fabric samples. The text begins with basic explanations of the materials, their production, and the techniques of weaving. (Click on any image for the super high-res version.)
Next there is a general survey of fabric types including bayadère, rep, taffeta, velour, cannelé, and gros de Tours. Each is accompanied by a weave diagram, a technical schematic of the information needed to create a particular pattern. Even as late as the 1920s, the production of silk fabric had changed little since the introduction of Jacquard looms at the beginning of the 19th-century. And it was this technology, specifically the punch cards used in Jacquard looms, that would lead to the development of the first mechanical calculators and then to modern computers.
The bulk of the manuscript comprises 100 rigorous analyses (“décompositions”) of textiles, moving from plain fabrics to the exotic and remarkably complex damasks, taffetas, and crèpes for which Lyon was famed. Most the of décompositions include fabric samples and coloured weave patterns. This section also includes painstakingly illustrated explanations of weaving machines, including the different types of Jacquard loom.
The manuscript itself is very prettily bound in maroon diced skiver on marbled boards (putting to shame all modern dissertation bindings!) The name C. Perret is in gilt to the spine and, while Perret is a common Lyonnais surname, it is interesting to note that the Directeur de la Condition des Soies, who was on the original commission for the school in 1881, was also a Perret.
This is a fascinating and handsomely produced manuscript, and a valuable historical record of the intersection between fashion, technology, and industry. If you know of similar manuscripts we would love to hear about them – please leave a comment!
To learn more about the history of silk production, visit silk history at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.