Weaving 101

This is part of the Silk in Lyon series.

We'll be talking about weaving a lot in this series. But what is weaving exactly? How is it done? What materials does it use? What products does it result in?

There are overall two types of fabric, which you could also call cloth: knitted, and woven. Knitted fabrics are made by creating lots of tiny loops, locked into each other. Your T-shirts are most likely knitted, so are many hats and scarves and sweaters. Generally, if it's very elastic, it's knitted.

The principle

Woven fabrics are what we'll talk about here. The basic principle is to interlock perpendicular threads: over-under, over-under, and so on. Repeat this with many parallel threads going both ways, and you get cloth!

Basic weave structure

In practice, one of the thread groups is prepared in advance, and the other is interlocked row by row. The prepared thread go along the length of the fabric, and are called the warp. Every thread in a warp is called a warp end, and the number of threads per inch is measured in "epi", (warp) ends per inch. How big the epi is depends on the type of yarn used, and will affect the finished cloth greatly.

The other thread goes along the fabric's width, and is called the weft. Historically this was done by having the thread on a shuttle, and passing it back and forth from left to right and right to left. Newer techniques have been devised to make mechanized weaving faster, but this isn't the topic today.

A very simple loom

The simplest loom is what I'm using in my tapestry classes: basically a wooden frame with nails on it. The warp is wound around the nails, and the weft passed manually over-under-over-under and so on. This is how traditional tapestry is made to this day, though often using more sophisticated, larger looms with devices to lift every second thread. Separating the two thread groups, even and odd-numbered, is called opening the shed. Weaving happens by opening the shed, passing the weft through, switching the shed to the other thread group, passing the weft, etc. In tapestry, this is mostly done manually, and a frame loom such as this means you pick out the threads by hand everytime.

The rigid heddle

A slightly more sophisticated loom is a rigid heddle loom. It has two beams, or rollers: one at the back storing the warp, one at the front storing the woven cloth. The goal is to keep enough space for the shed to open cleanly. As you can see, every second thread is in a hole and will move up and down with the heddle. Push the heddle down, one shed opens; pull the heddle up, the other shed opens. A simple loom such as this is enough to make cloth quite fast already, compared to picking out the shed manually! Ashford, a company that manufactures looms, spinning wheels and more, has pretty good videos showing the whole process

Shaft looms

If we upgrade the loom a bit and make it bigger, we get this typical floor loom. This is what was used to make cloth for the longest time, and is still in use by many handweavers today. You can still see the two beams, but the mechanic at the center is quite different. This time we have several structures, called shafts. Each of these lifts a different group of warp ends, which allows the weaver to make more complex patterns. Preparing a loom is called dressing, and takes a lot longer than the weaving itself! Every thread has to be passed through the shafts in the right place, and through the reed at the front that keeps the threads spaced correctly. If you have jeans, look at them: the cloth likely has small ribs on it. This is a structure called twill, and is a typical use of a loom with a few shafts. More shafts can produce very complex patterns, as superbly demonstrated by Arra Textiles

Materials and finishes

The base material for weaving, like knitting, is yarn, but it'll often have different characteristics. For the warp, you'll generally want strong, non-elastic yarn as it'll be under quite a bit of tension. Materials can be anything: linen, wool, cotton and such as very common, but experimental weavers and fiber artists can use anything, from coper wire to paper! See for instance this wonderful fiber optic and silk curtain.

A woven cloth is not ready to use off the loom. It will need washing, pressing, and sometime further chemical processing, to get its final appearance and properties. The way a fabric feels to the touch is called the hand of the cloth. The way it behaves over a form is the drape. Different fabrics will bend and stretch differently, and as a weaver you get to decide exactly what you want to make. It will depend on the weave itself, on the yarn, how it was dyed, how it was spun, on the fiber, how it was grown, how it was prepared. At the peak of the Fabrique in Lyon, from the silk worms to the finished cloth, there were 60 to 90 different jobs involved in the manufacturing process! Textile manufacturing is mostly invisible today, but it's a very complex and fascinating industry.

What next?

Okay, that's all very nice and interesting. But we stopped at rather simple geometric patterns. So you'll ask, how are those very complex flowers and birds I've seen on brocards made? How are those questionable painterly cushions I've sit on a few times woven? When do the punchcards come in, because I'm a programmer and I KNOW punchcards are somewhere? That brings us back to Lyon, and we'll talk about it in the next part!

Why silk in Lyon?

This is part of the Silk in Lyon series.

Lyon is a city in the middle-south of France, on the Rhône. It's always been a commercial hub as a result, way before planes and trains were available, and got plenty of tax-free fairs by royal orders. Italy is also not too far, which means many merchants came to the fairs. In the 15th century, that was where silk was bought in France, but not made.

Unfortunately, wars with Italy were a reoccurring thing, and the French tendency to protectionism was already very present. The French king Louis XI decided to try and start a silk industry in Lyon in 1466, as a natural evolution of the commerce already set there. It didn't take, as Lyon was afraid this would scare the Italian merchants away. The silk weavers went and settled in Tours instead.

In 1536, François the First was both fond of silk and of fighting the Italians. He wrote new letters, giving the same rights to Lyon that Tours had: weaving silk, gold and silver. The context had changed: more letters from the king had made Lyon a very free town, and this time the new industry picked up quickly. Italian silk weaving masters settled in Lyon, paying no taxes as long as they lived within the town walls, and taught their craft to the locals. This blooming industry will later be known as La Grande Fabrique, "The Great Manufacture/Factory".

The second part of the 16th century starts the cycle of crisis for silk in Lyon: between religious wars, shifts in taxes and competition, the industry collapses a first time. It picks back thanks to more shifts in rules, and an innovation, the "métier à la tire", literally "pulling loom" and translated to drawloom. We'll talk more about the technicalities in a later article.

Around the same time, thanks to more royal decisions, the south of France starts growing silk. If you're not familiar with the process, it involves breeding butterflies to collect the cocoons of the worms. To collect just the one continuous thread, a process called reeling, the poor larvae need to be boiled dead before they poke a hole in the cocoon. This is why silk is generally not vegan-friendly!

This brings us to the 17th century, and Colbert. Through several reforms, rules and what we would today call a marketing push, the number of silk weavers in Lyon grows quickly. Orders mostly come from the Crown, to furnish castles and dress princes. But as the reign of Louis XIV comes to an end, these dry out, forcing the industry to look for new clients. Pattern-makers leverage the reputation of the French court, and start shaping the "French taste", which we'll discuss in detail in another article.

The 18th century is a golden age. All of Europe wants French silk, designed and woven in Lyon. Paris is a fashion capital, where merchants from Lyon and their artists make sure to keep up with trends. The social structures get set in stone, causing the first serious clashes between weavers and silk merchants. Several inventors innovate and improve on the classic loom: Basile Bouchon and Jean-Baptiste Falcon use punch cards, Jacques Vaucanson attempts mechanization. None of these catch on entirely, but they will lead the way for the Jacquard loom.

Then comes the French Revolution, which changes everything. Obviously the political earthquake affects Lyon and the silk industry, but a big problem is that nobles were the main customers of silk. The rest of Europe is also mildly upset by the whole beheading thing. The religious congregations get kicked out from the Croix-Rousse hill, which becomes the heart of the Fabrique. And that will be our next part!

Lyon articles index

In early January 2016, I spent a few days in Lyon to explore the textile history of the town. That was prompted by visiting the silk museum in Stockholm, where I learned that Swedes had stolen all the mechanical secrets from Lyon!

Everything I heard and saw will not fit in a single reasonable write-up, so I'll be dividing it up. Here's a preliminary plan that will turn into an index, of course highly subject to change as I write the parts!

  • History and social context
    • Why silk in Lyon?: On the beginnings of the Fabrique, from François the First to the Roi Soleil, up to the French Revolution.
    • La Croix-Rousse: Recentish story of the neighborhood which was basically a weaving factory in the 19th century.
    • What was a canut?: Won't be the first nor the best explanation of it, but maybe a start for the curious!
    • What was a soyeux?: The 1% of the days.
    • The various revolts: And why the left-wing picking up slogans without digging is problematic.
    • The modern crisis and what and who is left: Or "I was lucky to meet a daughter of a canut whose father gave up only in 1980".
    • Processing my thoughts on how this relates to my field :): Expect Silicon Valley bashing, a criticism of the modern left-wing and anti-capitalism.
  • Technique
    • Weaving 101: 'Cause we can't talk advanced fun without the basics.
    • From "lacs" to the Jacquard in Lyon: From pulling ropes and exhausting work to a machine making the job disappear.
    • Some velvets and how they're made: Because I hate velvet with a passion but fell in love with how it's made.
    • Those huge ribbon looms from Switzerland They look awe-inspiring and the way they work is really interesting!
    • "Chiné" or the French take on ikkat: How to make complex patterns on a plain weave.
    • Brocatelles, "pockets" and a few ways to add 3D
  • Art
    • From ripping off the Italians to "the French taste": Tied into the early days is how patterns developed.
    • Woven portraits: Amazingly expensive and impressive technical achievements.
    • Why you shouldn't use your flash when taking pictures: Reflection on pigments, the current aspect of old textiles versus re-weaves, and how things might have looked in the past.