Why silk in Lyon?

This is part of the Silk in Lyon series.

Lyon is a city in the middle-south of France, on the Rhône. It's always been a commercial hub as a result, way before planes and trains were available, and got plenty of tax-free fairs by royal orders. Italy is also not too far, which means many merchants came to the fairs. In the 15th century, that was where silk was bought in France, but not made.

Unfortunately, wars with Italy were a reoccurring thing, and the French tendency to protectionism was already very present. The French king Louis XI decided to try and start a silk industry in Lyon in 1466, as a natural evolution of the commerce already set there. It didn't take, as Lyon was afraid this would scare the Italian merchants away. The silk weavers went and settled in Tours instead.

In 1536, François the First was both fond of silk and of fighting the Italians. He wrote new letters, giving the same rights to Lyon that Tours had: weaving silk, gold and silver. The context had changed: more letters from the king had made Lyon a very free town, and this time the new industry picked up quickly. Italian silk weaving masters settled in Lyon, paying no taxes as long as they lived within the town walls, and taught their craft to the locals. This blooming industry will later be known as La Grande Fabrique, "The Great Manufacture/Factory".

The second part of the 16th century starts the cycle of crisis for silk in Lyon: between religious wars, shifts in taxes and competition, the industry collapses a first time. It picks back thanks to more shifts in rules, and an innovation, the "métier à la tire", literally "pulling loom" and translated to drawloom. We'll talk more about the technicalities in a later article.

Around the same time, thanks to more royal decisions, the south of France starts growing silk. If you're not familiar with the process, it involves breeding butterflies to collect the cocoons of the worms. To collect just the one continuous thread, a process called reeling, the poor larvae need to be boiled dead before they poke a hole in the cocoon. This is why silk is generally not vegan-friendly!

This brings us to the 17th century, and Colbert. Through several reforms, rules and what we would today call a marketing push, the number of silk weavers in Lyon grows quickly. Orders mostly come from the Crown, to furnish castles and dress princes. But as the reign of Louis XIV comes to an end, these dry out, forcing the industry to look for new clients. Pattern-makers leverage the reputation of the French court, and start shaping the "French taste", which we'll discuss in detail in another article.

The 18th century is a golden age. All of Europe wants French silk, designed and woven in Lyon. Paris is a fashion capital, where merchants from Lyon and their artists make sure to keep up with trends. The social structures get set in stone, causing the first serious clashes between weavers and silk merchants. Several inventors innovate and improve on the classic loom: Basile Bouchon and Jean-Baptiste Falcon use punch cards, Jacques Vaucanson attempts mechanization. None of these catch on entirely, but they will lead the way for the Jacquard loom.

Then comes the French Revolution, which changes everything. Obviously the political earthquake affects Lyon and the silk industry, but a big problem is that nobles were the main customers of silk. The rest of Europe is also mildly upset by the whole beheading thing. The religious congregations get kicked out from the Croix-Rousse hill, which becomes the heart of the Fabrique. And that will be our next part!