A past woven in silk

Today we got a glimpse of the remnants of the once bustling silk trade in Lyon.

In 1540, François I granted a monopoly on silk production to the city of Lyon, which then became the capital of the European silk trade. Thousand of workers, known as canuts, were employed in this flourishing industry.By the mid-17th century, over 14,000 looms were used in Lyon, and the silk industry fed a third of the city’s population.

There is little left now but the odd specialty studio, but we were able to tour one atelier where silk is still printed, as well as the Maison des Canuts, a small museum to the canuts who wove the silk.

The son of Lyon who had a major influence on the weaving process was Joseph Marie Jacquard, who recognized that although weaving was intricate, it was repetitive, and saw that a mechanism could be developed for the production of sophisticated patterns. The Jacquard process is considered one of the most important weaving inventions and it uses perforated cards to repeat intricate patterns. Not surprisingly, Jacquard’s process was a precursor of the computer.

Other sights of Lyon include the Hôtel de Ville, the opera – with a bizarre lid on it – various public squares, a fountain by Auguste Bartholdi of Statue of Liberty fame, and various views from the Croix Rousse, the now-hip area where the silkworkers labored. Nice of them to leave their high-ceilinged buildings behind!

And then there is the world of Guignol, the main character in a French puppet show which has come to bear his name and which represents the workers in the silk industry of France. Laurent Mourguet, Guignol’s creator, was born into a family of modest silk weavers in 1769. When hard times fell on the silk trade during the French Revolution, he became a peddler, and in 1797 started to practice dentistry, which in those days was simply pulling teeth. To attract patients, he started setting up a puppet show in front of his dentist’s chair. By 1804 the success was such that he gave up dentistry altogether and became a professional puppeteer, creating his own scenarios  and improvising references to the news of the day.

We toured the puppet museum, with samples from around the world.

 

 

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