Picture this! 18th century Lyon and a race is on to revolutionise the production of elaborately patterned fabrics.

This race, ultimately, was won by Joseph Marie Jacquard (1752 – 1834) whose name is familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in textiles and to many others with no interest at all. In 1801 Jacquard demonstrated his patterning mechanism, which transformed the production of fabrics such as brocade, matelasse and damask.

English Mantua, circa 1708. Bizarre silk in salmon-pink damask with floral and foliate pattern brocaded with polychrome silk and gold metallic file

Prior to this their production had been extremely labour intensive and relied uponĀ  master weavers working in conjunction with a ‘draw boy’ who would stand on a perch above the loom and manually lift warp threads, thereby dictating whether the weft sat above or below the warp and thereby creating a pattern. Jacquard, working off the backs of earlier weaver/inventors, created a loom whose warp threads, via their bolus hooks, were controlled by cards punched with holes. The existence, or not, of a hole dictated whether the bolus hook would raise or lower the warp thread via the loom’s harness, therefore creating a pattern. Each card would correspond to the warp positions for one row (i.e. weft insertion) of the design. For example a loom with a 400 hook head might have four threads connected to each hook, giving 1’600 warp ends and four horizontal repeats. However, the jacquard loom is able to create non-repeating panels that might have 1’000s of warp ends and therefore bolus hooks, for examples this design commemorating Jacquard, produced in 1839 and requiring an extraordinary 24’000 punched cards!

Left: Portrait of Jacquard woven in silk on a loom requiring 24’000 punched cards 1839, Right: A Jacquard loom
Nowadays jacquard looms (or more accurately jacquard heads on dobby looms) are used to create a wide variety of fabrics woven from any fibre. What sets them apart from other textiles is that they are often relatively expensive due to the fact that, although jacquard heads are now digitally programmed, the warping of these looms remains labour intensive. Indeed, looms are often only threaded once, with subsequent warps being tied onto the ends of existing warps.

We recently attended Decorex and were able to view a variety of contemporary jacquards. We were very impressed by the work of the Gainsborough Silk Weaving Company, established in 1903. We had great fun riffling through their archive books. Every fabric they have ever woven has been documented, not only in terms of yarn and design, but also colour, with samples of one-off dyes kept for posterity. (They recently had to match the blue from the end of a Biro for a wealthy client – someone should have pointed out that it’ll look completely different once the lights are turned on!) At the other end of the spectrum we were inspired by the fleece blankets produced by Ian Mankin. These are woven from yarns that are 75% recycled cotton and 25% polyester from reclaimed materials (read plastic bottles!)

The Gainsborough Silk Weaving Company’s ‘Bed of Ware’, festooned in their silk damasks

Ian Mankin’s new range of fleece throws, made from recycled & reclaimed materials and woven on their jacquard looms

So why else might you have heard of Jacquard? Jacquard’s loom, with its punch card programming, is cited as an important step in the history of computing. The series of punch cards were the programme; change the programme and the machine will produce a drastically different result. Furthermore, instead of the process needing to be overseen by a master weaver it could be attended to by an unskilled labourer, highlighting the fact that in the realm of textile production the jacquard loom was key to the industrial revolution. In conclusion the fact that the term ‘jacquard’ is so ubiquitously used to refer to such a variety of not only woven, but also knitted textiles, is testimony to the extent of the revolution that was finally ushered in with Jaccquard’s 1801 demonstration. Styles of fabric that were once the domain of the wealthy became, with time, available to the masses.