Before the 1800s, weaving was a repetitive and mechanical process: lots of time and skill were required in order to produce the embellished textiles that were all the rage amongst the higher strata of society. Between 1801 and 1806, French weaver Joseph-Marie Jacquard developed a machine that was then individuated as one of the most important technological advancement in history: the Jacquard Loom.
Fabric of jacquard silk made by Tholozan et Cie, Lyon, 1855, Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, CC BY
Joseph-Marie Jacquard was born in Lyons in 1752, from a family of weavers. At the time, not only did weaving require a skilled weaver managing the loom, but also another professional, called drawboy, who was to sit next to the weaver and move the threads according to the design of the cloth. Jacquard was familiar with the process and understood that, in order to make the most from the business, it was key to make these passages automatic.
Once his parents died, he inherited the family business and devoted much of his time to study and develop a new machine that could make the weaving process faster ad more profitable.
Jacquard worked on his invention at the end of 1700s, but was interrupted buy the French Revolution. After the revolution, he went back to his project and developed a machine that he presented in Paris in 1804, where he patented his invention and was given a medal. The French government claimed that the loom was to become a public property, leaving Jacquard with no more than a small royalty.
The Jacquard loom was based on a system of cards, needles and hooks. The cards were made of cardboard, where holed could be easily punched in order to create the design; the hooks and needles used followed the holes in the cardboard, passing through these holes and inserting the thread to create the pattern. The more intricate the design was, the more cards were arranged one after the other in the loom. Thanks to the system on which it was based, the loom allowed to create highly complex designs and patterns, in which new colors could be used and marvelous patterns developed.
Manuscript related mainly to jacquard weaving, Courtesy MoMU - Modemuseum Provincie Antwerpen, All Rights Reserved
In terms of impact, it is not an exaggeration to say that Jacquard’s invention not only revolutionised the textile industry, but was also fundamentally for a more general technological advancement. Jacquard’s invention helped not only the textile industry, but helped in the advance of technology. The Jacquard loom not only cut back on the amount of human labor, but also allowed for patterns to now be stored on cards and to be utilized over and over again to achieve the same product. The jacquard loom allowed to ‘save’ patterns on cards that could be archived and re-used, cutting on time, labour and costs. The system followed a mathematical algorithm, and some have argued that the jacquard loom holds many similarities with computers: both machine work by storing and organising information.