Tapestry weaving and the Jacquard loom

How tapestry weaving and the Jacquard loom combined to revolutionize this ancient art.

All of the tapestries available on our website are Jacquard woven. What does this signify? A trip back to the thoroughly revolutionary times in France takes us to the life of Joseph-Marie Jacquard.

During the French Revolution large numbers of tapestries were burnt to retrieve the precious gold and silver threads they contained. Further, the literal death of the aristocracy removed the market for these luxury goods. The future for tapestry weaving looked bleak until an unsuccessful weaver opened up new options with mass production.

Joseph-Marie Jacquard

Jacquard was born at Lyon, France on July 7th 1752. He learnt to weave from his father when only ten years old. After the death of his father he inherited two looms but his business fared poorly and he was forced to move to Bresse taking work as a lime burner, while his wife stayed at Lyon. In 1793 he returned to part in the defense of Lyon, after which he was employed in a factory, and used his spare time to construct an improved loom based on ideas he had developed over the years.

At that time the slow high warp loom used since medieval times was still in use. (Some later purist like William Morris would still favour it – his first tapestry, Acanthus and Vine, was woven on such a loom installed in his bedroom.)

His revolutionary loom was shown at the industrial exhibition at Paris in 1801, and in 1803 he traveled to Paris to work for the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers. The many improvements in weaving offered by the loom ensured its general adoption by weavers and by 1812 there were 11,000 Jacquard looms in use in France. The loom was declared public property in 1806 and Jacquard was rewarded with a pension as well as a royalty on each machine. He died at Oullins (Rhóne) on August 7 1834, and in 1840 a statue was erected to him at his birthplace in Lyon.

The Jacquard loom

A Jacquard loom is a mechanical loom which uses a series of punch cards to control the weaving of patterns. Prior to its invention weaving was a labour-intensive process that relied on experienced professionals to produce even straightforward textile designs. The introduction of the Jacquard loom allowed weavers to concentrate more on the quality of designs produced, and to standardize the quality of the weaving itself. This effectively mechanized the production of tapestries and textiles.

Tapestry weaving and the Jacquard loomThe process uses punch cards that control a sequence of movements that would ordinarily be accomplished by hand. Although tapestry weaving is a complex process, there is a great deal of repetition in terms of looping threads. The threads taken together make up a weft, with individual threads lying above or below the weft, making a discernible pattern. The Jacquard loom automated this process of positioning individual threads thus removing much of the time-consuming repetition.

The punch cards have holes through which a hook can pass, determining whether the thread lies above or below the weft. Therefore the cards themselves are used to control the pattern. Most importantly the cards can be reused, allowing a degree of standardization in designs and patterns.

In many respects the Jacquard loom was a precursor to later machines that were more adept than humans at repetitive tasks, ultimately leading to the computer. The loom itself does not compute since the human controlled punch cards provide the information to make a given tapestry. This information is “stored” in the punch cards, allowing the same loom, and the same human weaver, the opportunity to weave any tapestry.

The Jacquard Loom was the first to rely on ‘controlled sequencing’. As well as having a huge impact on the mass production of tapestries it was the concept behind the ability to alter the weave pattern by swapping the cards, which acted as a catalyst for the creation of computer programming. The mathematician Charles Babbage intended to use the ‘controlled sequencing’ principle of the Jacquard Loom punch cards to store programs in what Babbage referred to as his ‘Analytical Engine’. The Babbage Engine is considered to be the first ever computer and was developed from 1837 until his death in 1871.

It is important to stress that the punch card system used in a Jacquard loom controls the tapestry weaving process, not the design. In addition the natural variations in all textiles mean that no two tapestries are ever the same. This is one of the many reasons tapestry wall-hangings are valued as much as they are – even today, using modern weaving techniques, each is a unique piece of art distinct from all others.

This loom took weaving from the domain of expensive experts to the world of mass production, at least by the standards of the 19th century. Since then, tapestry weaving and the Jacquard loom remained largely unchanged until the introduction of modern looms where computers store the information for a tapestry design, removing the need for punch cards. However the principle is identical to Jacquard’s own tapestry weaving loom from over 200 years ago. We have many reasons to be grateful to him.

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