In the words of Jean-Luc, the hero of my novel, The Silk Romance: ‘We have a saying that there are three rivers at the heart of Lyon. There’s the river Rhône, the river Saône and there’s the river of tears left by the silk workers.’
Although silk-weaving is now a dying industry in France, I have revived it in my contemporary romance novel, which is set in a silk mill in present-day Lyon. I touched on this briefly in my post The Next Big Thing and I thought you might be interested in learning a little more about the history of silk in this wonderful part of France. It’s a fascinating story and as for the final product – well, what’s not to love in the glamorous sheen and feel of genuine silk?
Up until the fifteenth century the French imported all their silks, from places such as Asia and Italy, but as you can imagine, this was incredibly expensive, and so Louis XI decided to establish French production in Lyon simply in order to save money. Later, in the sixteenth century, François I allowed Lyon to control the monopoly of the silk production – and so the City of Silk was born.
In 1804 there came a development which revolutionised not just the silk industry, but the textile industry around the world. A Lyonnais named Joseph-Marie Jacquard developed a method of producing patterned fabrics using perforated cards. This caused a massive leap forward in weaving techniques – a sort of early computerised production – which spread rapidly throughout Europe and through other textile industries, including the woollen industry in West Yorkshire, where I live. (In fact perforated cards were used up until very recently in the mill in Bradford where I used to work. It was only towards the end of the twentieth century that true computerised production, including computer aided design, began to be the norm.)
After Jacquard, much of the silk production in Lyon moved to the Croix-Rousse district, which is set on a hill with sweeping panoramas of the city. The Croix-Rousse is now a UNESCO World Heritage site (as is the village of Saltaire, a former woollen mill town where I live in West Yorkshire).
In the Croix-Rousse you’ll still find many covered stone passageways known as traboules. These covered passageways enabled the weavers to carry their silk protected from the rain. The houses in the Croix-Rousse also have very high-ceilings, necessary to accommodate the tall Jacquard looms. The silk-weavers of the Croix-Rousse were known as canuts and working conditions for these skilled artisans in the nineteenth century were very poor. In 1831 the Canuts were responsible for the first organised revolt in Europe of the “working classes” against poor social conditions and income.
One of the few remaining silk-weavers in Lyon is Prelle, the last remaining family silk run business in Lyon and the oldest. Prelle keeps a vast library of historic designs, some of which they recreated for the film Marie Antoinette. They also supply chateaux, theatres, opera houses, stately homes and fashion and interior designers for a range of other projects. I loosely based Pascha Silks, my fictional mill in The Silk Romance, on Prelle, and I’m glad to say Prelle is thriving and producing some of the most glamorous and exciting designs in Europe.
And so there we are, a very short history! You might also be interested in watching this short video by Sid Goldberg which shows a little bit of Lyon, including a Jacquard loom in action at Prelle. Other useful sites you might like to check out are: Lyon Tourist Office