Lyon, ville de soie

Lyon, to me, is one of the gems of France. It is deservedly famous for the local cuisine, the beauty of the preserved old city, now a UNESCO world heritage site and, even better, for being the historical and modern home of some of the most beautiful silk weaving ever to grace this earth.astitchornine (2)

There are many reasons to go to Lyon, be it gorging yourself on saucisson cuit, tartines, or Poulet de Bresse, or trying to decide which one of the many wonderful wines of the region to take down to the banks of the Rhone and watch the world and water pass by. One of my favourite things though is how its history as the ‘ville de soie’ (city of silk) still lives and breathes. You can ferret through the traboules, the network of small passageways, to traverse the hills of the Croix-Rousse, just as the silkworkers of old would have done to get between their workshops. The history of silk in the city can even be found in the local dishes. There’s a great piece called ‘cervelle de canut’, which literally translates as ‘silk worker’s brain’. Don’t worry, this isn’t a delightful excursion into cannibalism, but a refreshing cheese-based dish, seasoned with chopped herbs and other goodies.

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The silk working in Lyon though is not entirely confined to the past. There are still many local artisans, particulars in the area around Saint-Jeane, where you can purchase some sumptuous silks for yourself or one of the ‘velvet on silk’ pieces that Lyon is famous for. There’s a good few places to see but I think my favourite is the Soierie Saint Georges, which as well as their gorgeous pieces, still has a wonderful workshop at the back where you can see the various looms and cordmaking machines and the threads where it all starts. I would love to know where they get some of their metallics from, they are mesmerising!

Other places you may care to visit are CathAm, lots of interesting pieces based on silk dupions there. Sadly they only sell finished pieces, not the raw fabrics, and I am not sure if the dupions are made locally. They’ve got a bold and interesting sense of style however! On the more traditional side, there is also ‘Maison Brocher’ which is a place to go and drown yourself in wonderful velour. Many of the shop buildings are as beautiful as their contents, so keep your eyes open at everything around to make the most of the building.

There are many reasons that Lyon became so renowned for its fabrics, fashion and weaving was partly down to the decision of François I, King of France, granting the monopoly of silk manufacture to the city in 1540. This meant that all silks passed through the city on their journey to the wider world. Following this was the work of Claude Dangon and his ‘draw loom’, invented in the 17th Century, which put Lyon at the forefront of velvet weaving.

This was widely used until the invention of the Jacquard loom in 1801 which further sparked the ability to industrialise silk production. Around 1812, people started building in the Croix Rousse area and the trade became progressively more centralised there. This was a hive of activity but, despite the world-renown of the Lyonnaise fabrics and skill required to create them, many of the workers in all aspects of the fabric creation were desperately poor.

If you’ve ever seen industrial sized looms, even if they are not electrified, they are terrifyingly noisy and it is difficult work dealing with fabric with as much as thousands of ends to be threaded and managed. Long days, poor pay and the challenging conditions were all part of what contributed to the three major rebellions in Croix Rousse in 1831, 1834 and 1848.

Like St Gallen and many other places with rich textile histories, the city of Lyon has largely moved away from its silk routes, with biotech firms and industry springing up, but there is an organisation there determined to preserve the living history of the place, Soierie Vivante. They really do some heroic work trying to keep all aspects of the textile past of Lyon from disappearing from memory.

As part of this, they offer tours of two weaving workshops that don’t require booking of a passementerie or trimmings workshop (21 rue Richan, 69004) and the municipal weaving workshop (12 bis montée Justin Godart, 69004). The tours are deliberately staggered, so if you start at the trimming workshop (tours Tuesday – Saturday, 2pm and 4pm) you can walk down to the weaving workshop afterwards to catch the tour there. There’s a discount if you buy tickets for both.

Now if you don’t speak French, you might be in for a spot of bother, as while they have English handouts that are very informative and well-written, tours in English are only available on request and prebooking. However, I did find the guides spoke very clearly and well, so even though my French is far from amazing, I was able to keep up with nearly everything except for the dates… I am still not very confident with numbers in French and big numbers like 1880, when one of the looms was purchased, are a bit beyond me! The tour guides were incredibly knowledgeable about their subjects and gave very entertaining and informative tours so they do come highly recommended.

We started at the trimmings workshop for making bandings, braids or stripes – apparently the definition of what is passementerie and what is weaving is defined by the width of the weave, but the equipment shares many similarities. The workshop formerly belonged to Mrs Letourneau, where three gorgeous carved walnut looms dominated the room. Many of the workshops in Croix Rousse deliberately had very high ceilings to accommodate the monstrous weaving equipment and many of the weavers would live in the apartment with their workshop.

Two of the looms in the workshop have been sat in place since their installation in the 19th century, weaving kilometres of trim mainly for the military, and the third is a restoration project of another loom. Mrs Letourneau, born Henriette Dunoyer, was born in 1912, to a family of weavers. Her father originally had handlooms in this workshop but moved towards electric motorised looms that still stand today. By using punch cards, that are read by the Jacquard mechanism, the shafts could be used to make complex patterns with minimal human intervention and create the complex, raised designs these types of looms are so famous for. It is this punch card system that gave Charles Babbage the inspiration to use the perforated cards in his analytical engine, which is often considered the first general purpose computer.

It’s an incredible workplace, and you can see a demonstration of the looms in operation, with dozens of fly shuttles loaded up with gorgeous threads. The scale really is impressed and for those of you that weave yourself, you’ll appreciate just how backbreaking the labour to thread up these behemoths must have been. Or how heart-breaking it must have been if a thread ever snapped. While these looms were technically ‘automated’, they needed constant supervision for stray threads or breakages or in case things hadn’t been set up well enough to maintain good tension. With weaving on this scale it’s easy to see how a small snag could lead to a grand catastrophe.

The workshop is one large room and the tour is around thirty minutes. There’s an attached shop for some lovely silk goodies and old antique bobbins. The numbers on the time it would take to create just a short scrap of fabric are incredible. There are some amusing anecdotes about life in the workshop and how, when weaving for both the Americans and Russians, Mrs Letourneau would make sure the same loom was never used for both sides!

The second workshop is for more traditional fabric weaving and also gives you a taste of life as a 19th century weaver, as there’s the small internal lodgings, with bedroom and kitchen. It’s an impressive space, with four huge looms squeezed in, as well as a tressuse – the cord making machine. Each of the looms is about five metres high, with large oak beams installed in the ceiling to help allow access to the top of the machines where the pattern cards would be loaded and modified. Some of the looms have Jacquard mechanisms but ne of them has a similar, Verdot mechanism and another has a ‘bistanclac’ mechanism – making it a very noisy handloom.

The workshop stopped running in 1980 following the death of the owner and was acquired by the city of Lyon in 2014 in an attempt to preserve this special space. It’s hard to appreciate just how much history is captured in a room like this, from the technical expertise required to master this loom and the techniques that were unique to the region and specific weavers, to the glimpses of how life was in the 19th Century. Some of these looms were involved in the ambitious restoration project for recreating many of the fabrics at Versailles, many of which were sufficiently complex that a full day’s work would result in only a few centimetres of fabric being created. Again, it’s hard to appreciate how deafening and frightening the looms can be until you see them running in the same room and it does make you wonder how anyone managed a twelve-hour day in front of these. Even more so given the concentration and finesse a lot of the hand-woven pieces would require, especially the typical ‘fabrique lyonnaise’. I will share some delightful examples of this with you next week when I detail my visit to the ‘Musée des Tissus’ next week. I promise lots of photos.

They are great tours and I highly encourage you to take the opportunity to see this glimpse into history. The other place that might be worth a visit is the ‘Maison de Canuts’ that also has live demonstrations of the Jacquard weaving and looms for you to see.

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