Evocation in three sectors:
The history of the silk trade of Lyons. By Philippe Demoule.











This text is protected by the copyrights. The author authorizes however the reproduction of extracts only on Internet sites provided that the source is quoted and provided that a link is inserted. The reproductions on paper are strictly forbidden.

After the events which took place in Lyon in 1834 and were known under the name of days of April, the movement of emigration of looms towards campaigns becomes more marked.

As for the dispersal of the work with way outside Lyon, it ascend in the Revolt of the Silk workers and since had respite to increase, gaining at first campaigns of Lyons, then nearby departments. The manufacturers preferred to make work weavers spread and isolated in the surrounding campaigns either in small workshops steered by an affected, or at home. The loom at home was often then a complement to the works of the farm, authorizing a not unimportant contribution with the incomes of the farmers.

This tried tactics allowed so to the manufacturers employers, to assign lower salaries, without being afraid in counterpart of the reactions due to the dissatisfactions of workers grouped and organized in syndicates inside the city.

In Saint-Etienne, some "passementiers" had the idea to weave the romantic pictures of the painters of time, silk black and white. Real retorts of the photography, then rising and very fashionable, these pictures knew certain success. Curiously, the Jacquard mechanics which weaved them then works even nowadays in a few workshops near Saint Etienne.

In 1886, the City Council of Lyon, worried of protecting the seal of quality of the silk trade of Lyons, decides to create a brand in the weapons of the city, to allow to the buyers to recognize that the material was weaved in Lyon. This brand was the object of a control on behalf of a committee of surveillance based to deliver it to the manufacturers, and consisted of 54 members, manufacturers, weavers or inhabitants of the Town.

On September 29, 1901, one celebrated in the district of Croix-Rousse (in Lyon), the 500-th mechanical loom. This same day one inaugurated the statue of Jacquard , " benefactor of the silk workers ". In a book of 1933, Marcel Grancher, telling this day of double celebration, sends an imaginary message to the statue of Jacquard : " Good Jacquard , the bronze face of which is nevertheless so sweet, good Jacquard who, down from your granite pedestal, seem to smile to "gones" ( name done to the Lyon's children) surrounding, you had not certainly wanted what takes place at the moment. And maybe, please, say yourselves as well as, without the help of your mechanics which made possible the broadcasting of the textile industry, the silk workers would continue badly to live by pulling cords, but to live... ".

The crises succeed one another. In 1913, the " Condition of the silks of Lyon ", goes out of official body by where passed all the pure silk, weighed 8 145 144 kg of it. In 1931, this figure fell in 3 119 797 kg.

In 1916, Edouard Herriot (President of France) created the fair in the samples of Lyon, endowing the city of a invaluable instrument of economic expansion, while restoring her antique one and noble tradition. This fair which, besides a commercial place, was also and especially a place of meeting and confrontation of ideas, became quickly one of most important demonstrations of Europe. Every year in spring, it was going to carry the good name of Lyon in the four corners of the world.

Lyon is always the capital of the silk trade. It is not any more that of the silk. The used silk represents hardly 2 % of the weight of the materials today which are weaved there. The expression " weaving mill of silk trade " contains by extension all the materials with continuous fibers as the renamed artificial silk "rayon" since the law of July 8, 1934. For a long time the silk trade is not any more Mr. Bombyx's reserved domain. It is indeed in 1864 when the first artificial thread was made by the count Hilaire Bernigaud de Chardonnet. It is necessary to admit that the industry of the artificial fibers possesses its letters of nobility and is not absolutely an industry of replacement arisen from the war as one could suppose it. However, in 1864 , the artificial silk was far from being in the point. This thread was breakable, thick and of a shine... artificial! One could not decently present it as the future replacement of the son of Bombyx! So one worried enough not enough its existence. Beautiful work of chemist, one agreed there. But who would not live...

It was there only the first one arisen from a numerous family. It had brothers and sisters, whom one saddened with barbaric names: viscose, acetate, cupro. One also forgot them in the big storm of 14-18. The silk reigned and Bombyx was still for the holiday. The progressing chemistry, the thread of artificial silk was improved. It is necessary to return to the silk manufacturers this justice: it was only with shyness, with disgust almost, that they made a small place to these turbulent children. Since 1930, the chemists eventually produced an impeccable thread having the flexibility and the touch of the pure silk. It is delicate to assert that the fantastic development of the artificial thread is one of the causes of the decline of the silk trade of Lyons. Because if it is indubitable that it without thread infinitely easier to work that the pure silk, the foreign countries would have had difficulty finding at home the competent manpower in the work of the silk, it is as indisputable as without the artificial cheap, more professions had been stopped in Lyon.

On 1920 , 1930, crazy years! Finally! Prestigious "novelties" of Fructus et Descher, Ducharne, Dubost and Bianchini Férier. The modernism goes as far as being inspired by compositions of Raoul Dufy. It is the time of prestigious collaborations as that of Dubost and Ducharne. Michel Dubost, native of Lyon, should earn the keep and so reconcile this imperative and his attraction for the art. At the time of the administration of the silk and the weaving mill, he does naturally a professional activity of the drawing applied to the arts textile industries. In 1917, junior lecturer in the Fine art of Lyon, he tries to innovate in his class by respecting the personality of the pupil and by giving him the means to advance and to bloom. At the same time, a young manufacturer of silk trades in Lyon, François Ducharne notices his drawings and suggests him in 1922 reserving all his personal production of drawings textiles for the company Ducharne, and organizing in Paris a workshop of drawing by means of one groups of young draftsmen in the service of the same company. They will work together for 10 years for the fashion and the Haute Couture. It is the golden time of the illustrious dressmaker Paul Poiret that speaks to us about this artist's profession: " A man of genius can not comply with the requirements of the business, which wants to retain only what can be profitable. So, the gardeners preserve on a tree only the strong branches of fruits. But an artist needs to grow all his branches; and even those that will produce nothing are valid for him. Who would dare to say that they will not give also results in a more distant future? For the artist, the useless is more precious than the necessary and one makes him suffer when one chooses in its work what is monnayable only. An artist has antennae which vibrate for a long time in advance and he anticipates the tendencies of the preference well before the vulgar. The public can never declare that he makes a mistake. He can do only an act of humility in front of the things into what he does not penetrate... "

In 1975, to the Historic Museum of Tissues of Lyon, was held " crazy years of the silk ", prestigious retrospective exhibition grouping together sketches and drawings of Michel Dubost and the pupils of the studio of drawing Ducharne. On the poster, an inscription of famous Colette:


And the arm silk workers?

"Reader, look respectfully at this silk worker. You will not see it soon any more", already wrote in 1894 Nizier du Puispelu...

In the years 1950-1960, at request of the National Furniture which takes charge of the restoration of chateaux and national palaces, two manufacturers of Lyons raised each a workshop of arm Jacquaed looms. Here, weave luxurious materials which adorn the castles of Versailles, Fontainebleau, Compiègne and most of the foreign palaces. These shaped materials very complex are reconstituted scrupulously according to the original drawings of time, minutely traçés in the feather on the books(pounds) of commands(orders) of the manufacturers of formerly, and preserved today in archives. These books are themselves of real masterpieces of accuracy and manual dexterity. Materials which go out of these workshops can not be weaved mechanically because of the big number of complexions which compose them. The tissue created by Philippe de Lasalle for Marie - Antoinette's bedroom in the Chateau de Versailles contained 112 different nuances. Within his eight hours of labour daily, the silk worker weaved six centimeters of it...

In Lyon, the silk worker is one of the links of the long chain which participates in the preparation of a material, since the adaptation on the paper until that of the broadcasting. He does not proceed of the creation, does not take charge either of the warping, or the preparation of the loom. The role consists in weaving. It is only a weaver, but a weaver of talent having an absolute knowledge and a total mastery of its art. The draftsman in silk trade, the cards maker, the reader of drawing, the warping worker, etc. are so many specialists, so many links composing the same chain.

Nothing of amazing in what the silk trade of Lyons was able to occupy the population of the whole city.

In the ancien workshops stayed such as they were one and a half-th century ago, one tinkers the last shuttle. Because this material very special is not indestructible and ran out. In the put rhythm rhythm the coupled mechanics, prestigious brocades of gold, silver and silk elaborate at the rate of some centimeters a day. The beautiful materials in the uncountable colours, wind imperceptibly on rollers.

In the workshop in the dented and patched floor, the sun hurls its beams on threads tablecloths in the colours of rainbow. And these rays of light spread out there in a puddle of light, incapable that they are to pierce the silk tablecloth the density of which often reaches the 130 threads the centimeter.

In winter, in the dark night, the workshop takes a supernatural dimension. In the sanctuary of the silk, only the individual lamps of the looms, which replaced the hazy " chelus " with oil of former days. Spectacle fascinating of silk warms and face conscencieux of the silk worker tilted to its batten, which only emergent of the total darkness.

The last representatives of the profession look like local curiosity today. Where are so gone the forty thousand professions of Lyons which beat in 1890 ?

Dozens looms of Lyons were burned. One meets still in campaigns some frames supernaturally survivors. They are barded by boards and do, it seems, of admirable chicken runs...

If the mechanical silk trade of Lyons has maybe another future, the adventure of the silk worker ends here.

How do not to regret that any last arm looms are only dedicated to redo the former materials, denying so several centuries of creation. Imagine that a school can introduce young weavers motivated to these ancestral techniques, on this old charming and loaded with material of glorious past one, may put these techniques in the service of the contemporary creation of silk trade, seem to be an absurd idea, and however, it is not there all the tradition of the silk trade of Lyons?

Philippe DEMOULE.

So ended in 1979 this series of three articles. Twenty years happened. Twenty years, it is indeed few things in the long history of the silk trade of Lyons. Twenty years, it is what it was necessary to put it in ground and bring down it.

There will be so soon a fourth sector in this series which will there be sad epilogue, even its epitaph... But if the silk trade died, all the old arm and mechanical looms did not keep silent. Some guardian angels, by this and there ate still here, and we shall speak to you about hem soon.


Mr Joseph PERRET, who was the last silk worker independent from Lyon (in 1969), in his workshop of Croix-Rousse, verse 1969. It is in homage to this maternal grandfather disappeared too quickly that Philippe Demoule dedicated this series of articles on the silk trade of Lyons written in 1979.