What is the history of silk in Lyon?
Lyon was famed for its silk-weaving industry and the tradition continues to this day.
It was on the banks of the Saône River that Lyon’s history in silk began. During the Renaissance, in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the great fairs brought the early traders in silk to Lyon, and the industry began to flourish. In 1540, King François I gave an added boost to Lyon’s silk business by granting the city a monopoly on raw silk imports to France.
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.
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