When my husband and I visited the Saint-Etienne Biennale du Design exhibition at le Musée d’Art et d’Industrie, I got to see the mechanisms behind the renowned ribbon weaving tradition of this region. For three hours, I let myself be captivated by the machinery used in the local textile industry back in the days. Two-story high, with wooden frame, leather cord, steel gears, and spooling stick made of glass – a Jacquard loom simultaneously weaved strings of complicated ribbons. Standing next to it were a beater making machine made of steel, a semi-industrial scale spinning wheel that’s over two meter tall, a cardboard perforating machine, and a loom threading device that occupies an entire room. The 200 year-old wood-and-steel Jacquard looms on display were intricate, advanced, smart, and extremely well-made. The speed at which they weaved is faster than my laser printer; the quality is still top-notch. The only reason they were put into museums is because they cannot compete in price with ribbons made overseas. But top brands like Dior and Chanel still taps on those antique beasts for the silky ribbons that wrap around their exquisite product packages. For two centuries, this set of equipment married art, design, and engineering to bring about a burst of possibilities in the textile industry.
Introduced by and named after Joseph Marie Jacquard at the turn of the 19th century, the Jacquard mechanism made possible the weaving of complex patterns on an industrial scale. The basis of Jacquard mechanism is the use of perforated card which corresponds with a system of hooks which are, in turn, connected to the harness. Where the card is solid, nothing happens to the hooks and thus, the corresponding warp threads stay idle. Where there is a hole on the card, the mechanism would raise the corresponding hook which would, in turn, raise the harness. The subsequent warp threads connected to the harness will raise, letting the wept passing underneath. Jacquard loom draws from mechanisms made by inventors in the previous century. This simple and smart system allows the loom to weave many different types of fabric, including brocade, tapestry, and damask. Leimomi Oakes from the Dreamstress wrote an informative article Brocade vs. Jacquard detailing the different types of weaves/fabrics that a Jacquard loom can produce.
Threading a loom for Jacquard weaving is a time consuming and labor-intensive process. Because each hook can control several threads. Time that by the hundreds, if not thousands, of hooks, that a loom can have. Hence, the number of warp threads and the time to thread them. Therefore, a loom is usually threaded once and new patterns are created by manipulating the weft on an already-threaded warp.
During one project with ethnic weavers in Vietnam, I received a request from a buyer to recreate a Jacquard pattern on traditional handloom. The mechanism of the Jacquard loom allows it to weave complicated, multicolored patterns. Simulating this process on a handloom is difficult and, for certain patterns, impossible. From a piece of sample merely 40cm long, my weavers picked the design only to find that she ran out of space on the suspended string system which acts as a negative or a guide for pattern-making during the weaving (the equivalence of Jacquard’s perforated cardboard on traditional looms). The handloom used in the Thai community that I worked with also relies on a single warp layer, which leads to several limitations. To maximize the speed of weaving, all patterns on a horizontal line must have the same color so that the number of times the weaver passes a shuttle is minimized – one time for the colored pattern and one time for the base colored weft. With this method, the size of the pattern is limited because once a pattern is too big, the weft will hang freely on the left side of the fabric, making the patterned parts more prone to breaking or wearing off with time. Creating multiple colored patterns on a horizontal line is possible but takes longer time because the weaver will have to manually pass several shuttles, each carrying one colored spool. The Thai call this technique “weaving on loom” even though it is basically similar to multicolored brocade weaving. Primitive pattern “negative,” single layered warp and time-effort constraints in weft design are among the issues that Jacquard looms address. Without an understanding of both looms and what each can or cannot do, I had to come back to my buyer with a “no” – a thing that I never want to do. However, I learned a lesson that I have, ever since, been holding onto dearly in my heart. The process to introduce artisan fabric to a market that got used to industrial-scale production since almost two centuries ago needs not only good intention but also sound technical understanding.