Why is Lyon one of the world capitals of silk?

 

Lyon is famed for its level of craftsmanship when it comes to weaving silk. After all, artisans and craftsmen have spent generations perfecting their techniques. This city offers a marvelous look into the very trade that once provided livelihood to half of Lyon’s population and a lot of places to visit.

 

History of the Silk Industry in Lyon

Silks in Lyon remain interwoven throughout this city’s incredibly rich and vibrant culture.

For nearly five centuries, Lyon was Europe’s center for silk manufacturing and trade when Louis XI chose the city as a potential base for the silk weaving industry in 1466.

Silk in Lyon : a Jacquard loom

A mechanical Jacquard Loom from the 19th century at The Maison des Canuts. © DR

Silks in Lyon became extremely popular. Lyon’s location made it an ideal place for silk production and transport because of its proximity to northern and southern France. Lyon also had easy access to the renowned Italian silk-trading cities of Venice, Florence, Valencia, Lucca, and Genoa.

In 1535, King Francis I granted a royal charter to two merchants, Étienne Turquet and Barthélemy Naris, to develop a silk trade in Lyon.

Five years later, the king granted Lyon a monopoly on raw silk imports, ensuring that all fine silks coming into France from Asia or Italy first stop in Lyon.

 

Producing Silk in Lyon Takes a Turn Technologically

As the industry continued to flourish, the silks produced in Lyon began to exhibit their own unique, landscape-inspired style in lieu of original Asian styles.

The silk industry in Lyon, based along the Saone River (now the Vieux-Lyon) had grown exponentially by the 17th century, surpassing Valencia as the European capital of Silk. By the end of the 18th century, several new innovations in silk weaving technology brought about an increase in terms of both production and revenue.

Silk in Lyon, a canut workshop in the 19th cenury

A canut workshop in the 19th century (Musée Gadagne)

The mechanization of the Jacquard loom, a device used to simplify the process of manufacturing textiles with complex patterns, specifically allowed for faster, more efficient levels of production.

Lyon also went on to develop natural and chemical fabric dyeing techniques, only adding to the rest of the world’s desire for the beautiful, intricate silks Lyon could provide.

The first worker uprising in the industrial world

Throughout the 19th century, silk production was the biggest source of employment in Lyon. It created a multitude of jobs, from merchants to the canuts (silk weavers).Half of the city’s population depended on the sale, trade, and manufacturing of silk and textiles.

Unfortunately, a failing economy caused a drop in silk prices in 1831. This prompted the canuts to revolt, making history as this was the first worker uprising in the world. The canuts tried to impose a set minimum price for all silks, but to no avail.

The Second Canut revolt in 1834 occurred when the economy had become prosperous again, causing a surge in workers’ wages. Silk merchants saw these wages as too high, so they attempted to impose a wage decrease for the silk workers.

Silk in Lyon : canut uprising in Lyon Croix-Rousse

Second canuts uprising in 1834

The revolts were bloody, with over 600 deaths and 10,000 people imprisoned. During this time, the Croix-Rousse region was the biggest canut stronghold as it was very heavily concentrated with fighting rebels. Even today, the Croix-Rousse is still considered a rebel district.

The government ultimately put an end to the uprisings and the canuts continued to produce silks at mass rates.

Thousands of tons of silk were made in Lyon each year and over 100,000 looms were in operation by 1870. The popularity of Lyon’s well sought after silks and the extreme dedication of the canuts to their work shaped the very foundations of Lyon as we see it today.

 

The Silk Industry Lives On In Lyon

Even today, Lyon remains as one of the world’s go-to destinations for consumers and designers seeking top-quality silks.

Many silk makers have transitioned to more specialised skills in the trade such as working with some of France’s biggest haute-couture designers to create high-end fashion.

Chanel and Hermès are two major companies that turn to Lyon to weave their silks. Hermès is France’s biggest fully integrated silk manufacturer with over 800 people working in their production center in Lyon.

There are a variety of historical landmarks and museums in Lyon all pertaining to silk and the trade’s significance to this city.

 

Silk-Centered Places to Visit in Lyon :

  • The Musée des Tissus

The Musée des Tissus, located in Lyon’s 2nd arrondissement, is home to one of greatest collections of textiles and silks in Lyon.

silk in Lyon, musée des Tissus

Yves Saint-Laurent worked with Lyon’s silk weavers

Here, you can find an array of tapestries, garments, costumes, and silk-woven portraits from all over the world. Their collection consists of over two million pieces, some of them dating back to 4,000 years ago.

(34 Rue de la Charité, 69002 Lyon, France)

  • The Croix-Rousse slopes and hill

La Croix-Rousse, a 254 meter (833 ft.) high hill in Lyon’s 1st and 4th arrondissement, is known for its neighborhood divided into les pentes (slopes). This area is also known for its many covered stone passageways known as traboules.

Silk in Lyon, la cour des Voraces

La Cour des Voraces, one of the most famous traboule and epicenter of the Canuts revolts.

These passageways allowed the silk-weavers to quickly carry their silk to the rivers they would be transported along while giving them protection from rain.

Additionally, you will notice many houses in the Croix-Rousse region have very high-ceilings as this was once necessary to hold Jacquard looms.

(1st arrondissement of Lyon, north of the the Presqu’île)

  • La Maison des Canuts

If you’re interested in visiting another museum, La Maison Des Canuts has several looms on display, each from every era of Lyon’s silk-weaving timeline. They can also provide further information on the history of the canuts, the invention of the Jacquard loom, and the modern textile industry as we know it today.

(10 Rue d’Ivry, 69004 Lyon, France)

  • Soierie Saint-Georges

But what about purchasing some of Lyon’s precious silks for yourself? You might want to visit Soierie Saint-Georges, a silk-weaving workshop with a boutique featuring handwoven articles and accessories, located in the Vieux Lyon district.

(11 Rue Mourguet, 69005 Lyon, France)

  • L’Atelier de Soierie

L’Atelier de Soierie is an excellent place to purchase authentic scarves and other silk products as well. They specifically specialize in silk squares and continue to use century-old techniques for their craft.

(33 Rue Romarin, 69001 Lyon, France)

 

Silks in Lyon are a treasure to this city! Take the time to purchase some for yourself or to learn the incredible history behind them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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