History of French silk

Italian silk cloth was very expensive, as much a result of the cost of the raw material as of the production costs. The craftsmen in Italy proved unable to keep up with the exigencies of French fashion, which continuously demanded lighter and less expensive materials.[38] These materials were used for clothing, and garment production began to be done locally. Nevertheless, Italian silk long remained among the most prized, mostly for furnishings and the brilliant colours of the dyes.

Following the example of the wealthy Italian city-states of the era, such as Venice, Florence, and Lucca, which had become the center of the luxury-textile industry, Lyon obtained a similar function in the French market. In 1466, King Louis XI decided to develop a national silk industry in Lyon. In the face of protests by the Lyonnais, he conceded and moved the silk fabrication to Tours, but the industry in Tours stayed relatively marginal. His main objective was to reduce France's trade deficit with the Italian states, which caused France to lose 400,000 to 500,000 golden écus a year. It was under Francis I in around 1535 that a royal charter was granted to two merchants, Étienne Turquet and Barthélemy Naris, to develop a silk trade in Lyon. In 1540, the king granted a monopoly on silk production to the city of Lyon. Starting in the 16th century, Lyon became the capital of the European silk trade, notably producing many reputable fashions. Gaining confidence, the silks produced in the city began to abandon the original oriental styles in favor of their own distinctive style, which emphasized landscapes. Thousand of workers, the canuts, devoted themselves to the flourishing industry. Fabrics were diversified with the first mechanical looms. By the 18th century, silk production was the pillar of Lyon’s economy: 28,000 people were registered as silk workers in 1788.

In the early 19th century, the Napoleonic era gave new impetus to the silk business, as did the invention of the Jacquard loom in 1801. Fabric dying techniques helped drive the development of the chemical industry, solidly in place by the mid-1800s. By 1870, the silk industry accounted for 75% of Lyon’s total industrial activity, with about 100,000 looms in operation.

But the history of silk in Lyon also saw dark moments during the revolt of the “Canuts” silk workers. These weavers, concentrated in the Croix-Rousse district of Lyon, were employed by the great silk merchants. In 1831, they revolted against the prices set for silk weaving and their exhausting working conditions. At the end of November that year, the Canuts took control of the Croix-Rousse and Presqu’Ile areas, but on December 2nd, the army took back the city and crushed the uprising. In February 1834, a second revolt erupted and the Canuts held out against 12,000 soldiers for six days, before another violent repression (300 killed and hundreds injured).

Today, automatic looms and new weaving techniques have replaced the Canuts. Silk makers turned to other fibers or shifted to highly specialized skills such as restoration of historic fabrics or supplying haute-couture designers.

The Museum of Textiles preserves the history and heritage of Lyon’s silk industry. Though the future of the museum is currently uncertain, the epic history of silk nonetheless continues, as can be seen in the recent opening of a train service between China and Lyon running along the old Silk Road.