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S is for Silk in the 19th Century

Published on , by Marielle Brie

As the Ancien Régime drew to its gruesome conclusion, French silk was in high demand and exported in great quantities. Lyon reigned supreme, but cotton mousseline soon replaced patterned silk and wallpaper replaced silk wall hangings. The silk industry had to adapt and innovate.

A Worth ball gown, c. 1900, ‘velours au sabre’ with satin background decorated with... S is for Silk in the 19th Century

A Worth ball gown, c. 1900, ‘velours au sabre’ with satin background decorated with flowering hydrangeas, boned pointed bodice, sleeves and neckline originally edged with ruffled tulle. Hôtel Drouot, December 7, 2021. Coutau-Bégarie OVV. M. Maraval-Hutin.
Result: €10,948

The last years of Marie-Antoinette’s reign and those of the French Revolution had one thing in common: a distaste for silk. However, it was short-lived. Aware of France’s dire economic straits, First Consul Bonaparte counted on the fickleness of fashion to breathe new life into the Fabrique lyonnaise, which brought the silk mills in the country’s second city together into one corporation. Napoleon continued supporting them after his coronation, issuing a decree stating that ceremonial garments as well as the decoration and furnishings of the Imperial House of France had to be made of Lyon silk. Europe soon followed suit. Thousands of looms hummed to fill an endless flow of orders for luxurious patterned or solid fabrics. Production and exports grew at a steady pace and before long Lyon won the envied title of silk capital of the world. At first, carefully compartmentalized Empire patterns were featured, with flowers as the dominating theme. In 1807, a class was established at the Lyon École des Beaux-Arts to help maintain silk production at a high level. The amazingly fresh palette ranged from peach to tender green, saffron yellow and cerulean blue woven into brocade, velvet and damask. By the time it fell in 1815, over 600,000 meters of Lyon silk ordered by the Imperial House were left unused, woven mainly by Camille Pernon and Grand Frères. The early 19th century also saw the invention of the Jacquard loom, which revolutionized silk production.

The Dawn of Industrialization
Expanding on the ingenious advances of Vaucanson and Philippe de Lasalle, who invented perforated cards to plan out patterns, Joseph-Marie Jacquard (1752-1834) invented an automated high-capacity loom. This invention could weave patterned fabrics more easily and quickly—90 cm/35.5 in for clothing and 130 cm/51.2 in for upholstery were the most common widths—and reproduce paintings by notable artists in black and white silk. This did not bode well for silk workers, who were understandably worried. It took just one person to operate the Jacquard loom, and skilled weavers were afraid of becoming simple appendages to the machine, which is indeed what happened in the 1870s. The new loom was adopted in cities where production had slowed down, such as Tours, where the Le Manach Company, founded in 1829, specialized in high-end products and today still fills orders for the Mobilier National. Despite everything, the production of patterned silk remained expensive and the most complex models still required the use of a handloom. But new innovations opened up a wider market for silk. Printing on the warp during the weaving process itself, often of taffeta, appeared in about 1820 and immediately won over upper-middle-class customers yearning for a taste of the Ancien Régime and the Empire’s lavish patterned silks.

Designs printed on high-quality silk, some of which came from silkworm farms in the Cevennes, south-central France, allowed customers to follow in the aristocracy’s footsteps at a lower cost. Designers who once created weaving effects now focused on cards and created prints for clothes and upholstery. There was no shortage of customers. While official demand fell as the 19th century advanced, private orders rose. New chemical dyes made it possible to create highly identifiable styles. The precursor, the emblematic Raymond blue based on Prussian blue, was indissociable from the silk of Restoration period interiors. Overstuffed furniture was covered with floral and fruit-patterned silk and velvet upholstery before the refined, gracious charm of the late 18th century came back into style. In fashion, silk was used only for women’s apparel, which gradually trended from simple, straight lines to opulent, puffy and generously silky silhouettes. Patterns, usually floral, came and went. They, as well as solids, were toned down by the invention of new shades. In the 1840s, colors grew darker—burgundy, purple and green became fashionable—before brightening up again at the end of the century, as attested by fashion designer Charles Frederick Worth’s creations.

The Swan Song
Technological advances fueled the rise of illustrated magazines featuring the first haute couture collections, whetting the appetite of the middle class, which pored over them to see the latest Paris fashions. This was a new market for the silk industry, which adopted blended fabrics—silk and cotton, silk and wool—willingly, but mostly by force: in 1856, pébrine wiped out French silkworms and forced the Fabrique lyonnaise to import and innovate. The result was affordable mixed fabrics. Like so many other fine crafts, woven patterned silk went into a downward spiral. Bittersweet creations of the 1880s, books in silk were not printed but woven on Jacquard looms by the J.A. Henry Factory. These remarkably refined collections of poems and prayer books featuring an admirable stylistic inventiveness were anachronistically expensive. As Paris became the art capital of the world, painters were invited to Lyon to try their hand at printing on silk. What the products gained in modernity they lost in quality. In the 20th century, avant-garde and fertile creativity was elevated at the expense of classics and craftsmanship.

Worth seeing
The Jacquard loom in operation at the Maison des Canuts in Lyon
and Charles Frederick Worth’s gowns at the Palais Galliera in Paris.
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