The Jacquard Mechanism: Innovation

Small Woven Portrait of Joseph Marie Jacquard, Macclesfield Museums
Jacquard. The word has come to mean a fabric with the design incorporated into the weave. That fabric actually takes its name from the mechanism on top of the loom that creates the woven design. That mechanism is named after its inventor, Joseph Marie Jacquard (1752 – 1834).

In 1834, in the final year of his life, Joseph Marie Jacquard was well aware of the importance of his invention. He was then living in Oullins, a village on the outskirts of Lyon. A substantial annual pension, awarded to him 29 years earlier in 1805 by Napoleon Bonaparte for his invention, meant he was able to afford a comfortable existence.


From his garden, Jacquard would perhaps be able to hear the distant clatter of the looms from the workshops in the houses within the Croix-Rousse district of Lyon where the Canuts (Lyonnais silkweavers) worked. He saw how his mechanism had changed the nature of the architecture in Lyon with buildings such as Maison Brunet. Lots of windows for light and high ceilings to accommodate the height of looms using his mechanism. In Macclesfield, as with many weaving towns, a similar architectural effect of the Jacquard mechanism looms is seen in the garret houses and mills.

Canut (Lyonnais Silk Weaver) Workshop, Wikimedia Commons
Handloom Weaver in a Garret Workshop, etching by R A Risely

From the 9th to the 15th of April in 1834, Jacquard may also have witnessed the distant violence of the second of the Canut revolts. Silk weavers rose up against the proposed enforcement of a reduction in their wages. Known as the “sanglante semaine” (week of blood), several hundred people were killed in the fighting. With the Jacquard mechanism came a greater implementation of the factory system. Silk weavers were paid “piece rate”, a fixed price for the amount of fabric they produced and they were particularly effected by economic changes in the market. Macclesfield silk weavers faced similar problems during the 19th century.

Jacquard’s mechanism changed the textile industry in many ways. We are going to look at what made his mechanism so innovative and sought after by silk manufacturers

First lets discover some background to Jacquard himself. He did not even begin to work on any developments to the loom weaving process until he was 47 years old. The name Jacquard could have very easily been lost to history.

Joseph Marie Jacquard

Born on July 7th 1752, into a weaving family in Lyon, Jacquard would have quickly become familiar with the tools and machinery used in the weaving trade. It is tempting to think of him working as a draw boy, lifting up the warp threads for his father, hating the work and inspiring him to invent his mechanism. This is perfectly possible, but there is no direct evidence Jacquard actually worked as a draw boy. However, he clearly developed an interest in and understanding of the machinery. He would have helped his father in the workshop, learning how to fix and maintain the looms.

Jacquard was not educated at school, but did receive some schooling in his early teens. In 1765, his elder sister Clémence married Jean-Marie Barret, a well educated man who loved books. He recognised the young Jacquard’s intelligence and taught him to read and write.

Jacquard’s mother had died in 1762 and in 1772 his father died. The 20 year old Jacquard now inherited his father’s weaving business as well as a quarry and vineyard that his father also owned.
However, the business skill of his father does not appear to be something that Jacquard inherited. By 1783, Jacquard had spent most of his inheritance, was heavily in debt, and was forced to sell the remainder of what he owned. There are mixed reports about the work he then did. Labouring in a plaster quarry, working as a lime burner; type-founding for printers and making cutlery are some of the jobs he is said to have done.

Jacquard had married Claudine Boichon in 1778 and their only son Jean-Marie was born in 1779. Claudine was from a middle class family from Lyon. She owned property and some wealth but much of the dowry had to be sold when Jacquard fell into debt. Claudine helped support the family by making straw hats. These were hard times for Jacquard and his family.

Then came the French Revolution. In 1793, Jacquard and his teenage son Jean-Marie defended Lyon against the Revolutionaries. By the end of the siege, to avoid capture and possible execution, they both joined the Revolutionary Army under false names. They stayed together, fighting with the Revolutionaries until tragically, Jacquard’s son was killed next to him during a battle. In 1798 Jacquard returned to his wife Claudine in Lyon. He continued to work odd jobs, bleaching straw hats and occasionally doing some work fixing looms.

From fishing nets to Napoleon Bonaparte

Camille Pernon, Wikimedia Commons
It seems by 1799, with the Revolution now over, Jacquard turned his attention more seriously to the development of new mechanisms for improving the weaving process. He found a patron in Camille Pernon, a Lyonnais silk manufacturer, who financed Jacquard and allowed him to test out his inventions. His first patent (not the final mechanism design) appeared in December 1800. It was described as a “machine designed to replace the draw boy in the manufacture of figured fabrics”. This loom was entered into the second Paris “Exposition des Produits de L’industrie Française”(Exhibition of Products of French Industry) in 1801, where it received a bronze award.


It was a competition for a prize to anyone who could make a fishing net by machinery that was the real turning point. In the 1832 Parliamentary enquiry into the silk industry British economist and politician John Bowring described the occasion he went to meet Jacquard and was told of how he mechanism came to be invented. Jacquard is said to have seen an extract from an English newspaper that found its way into his hands. It contained an advert from a society offering a prize to anyone “who should weave a net by machinery”. It seems the French had a similar competition as well.

Paris Exposition of Products of French Industry 1801, Wikimedia Commons

Jacquard invented a loom that automatically wove fishing nets. It was exhibited at the third Paris Exposition in 1802 and caught the attention of Lazare Carnot, French mathematician and politician. Carnot was well known for his military role during the Revolution and earned the nickname the “organiser of victory”. Jacquard was invited to Paris, where Carnot presented him with the prize of 1000 francs (around £20,000 today) awarded by the Société d’encouragement pour l’industrie Nationale (Society for Encouraging National Industry).


Lazare Carnot, Wikimedia Commons
Jacquard was also invited to the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers in Paris, where he saw some of those earlier attempts at automating the weaving process. He saw the loom that Jacques Vaucanson had invented nearly 60 years before and saw how he could improve upon the design. Jacquard returned to Lyon and set about refining his automated weaving machine. In 1804 Jacquard patented his new mechanism. Lazare Carnot told Napoleon of Jacquard’s new successful loom mechanism. On April 15th 1805 Napoleon issued a decree declaring the Jacquard loom public property. Jacquard himself was awarded that lifetime pension and also a royalty on each loom put into service during the first six years. Three days later Napoleon and his wife Josephine stopped off in Lyon, on their way to Milan, to visit Jacquard and see the mechanism he had invented.


Jacquard’s Innovation

What made Jacquard’s mechanism better?

He took the idea of Falcon’s loop of punched cards, simplified the overall design of Vaucanson’s loom, and applied his own improvement by using a four sided rectangular cylinder (instead of a barrel cylinder) to rotate each punched card in the loop. Jacquard’s mechanism could also control a far larger number of individual warp threads. His loom therefore had the ability to weave entire pictures (where there are no regular repeats) as well as complex patterns. The speed at which the fabric could be woven was also much faster and it could all be operated by one weaver.


Take a look at this short video for a closer look at how the Jacquard mechanism works.

However, Jacquard’s initial looms were not without their teething problems. Camille Peron, his sponsor, was using the first of these new looms in 1806 but early versions were not entirely reliable so few companies were keen to invest in using them. The cylinder block had a tendency not to align properly with the holes in the card loops, creating weave errors. They were also very noisy and shook. The weavers nicknamed the new loom the “Bistanclaque” – a nonsense word to describe the sound the loom made. There are also stories that Jacquard was thrown into the river by an angry mob of weavers concerned that the new loom would put them out of work. There is no real evidence that this happened and could simply be a legend. It took about 10 more years to properly refine the mechanism and it was not until around 1815 that it had truly been perfected. This was down to another talented loom mechanic called Jean-Antoine Breton who worked out how to fix the problems.

Nothing is ever perfect however, and improvements to the looms and their mechanisms were continually being made. A feature that gave your looms an edge over your competitors was very sought after and closely guarded. There was consequently much industrial espionage and smuggling of secrets. This was how the Jacquard mechanism found its way to England and as a result, Macclesfield was an early adopter of the new Jacquard loom.

Spying and smuggling – How we got the Jacquard loom

Stephen Wilson was a Spitalfields silk manufacturer and entrepreneur and the person who smuggled the first Jacquard loom out of France and into England. He had first heard of Jacquard’s incredible new automated machine while being held prisoner in France from 1803 to 1807 during the early part of the Napoleonic Wars. He read again later of Jacquard’s mechanism in an article published in 1810. He made it his mission to get hold of one for his silk manufacturing business, Lea, Wilson and Company. He realised how it could transform and modernise the production of silk fabrics.

Stephen Wilson’s SilkMill in Streatham, where the first Jacquard Looms in the country were used. It is now a Sainsbury’s, Wikimedia Commons
It took ten years for Stephen Wilson to obtain a Jacquard mechanism. Thomas Smith, who was Stephen Wilson’s agent and spy in France, wrote a letter to him in 1820 describing how he had examined the machine and had managed to obtain hooks and other parts as requested. Eventually, at the considerable cost of £1000, Stephen Wilson was able to finally get hold of the loom and discover how it worked. He built a new mill in Streatham where he lived and it was here that he installed and ran the first Jacquard looms in this country. He likely chose a location outside of London and Spitalfields as it was away from his potential competitors and their spies. He was granted a patent for the new mechanism in this country in 1821. It gave him exclusive rights on its use for the next fourteen years.

This was not the only example of Jacquard mechanism smuggling to occur. In Sweden, in 1833, Knut Almgren established his silk manufacturing business K A Almgren, which still exists in Stockholm today. He had previously spent a couple of years in Lyon studying the silk industry and the loom machinery. He successfully smuggled out a dismantled Jacquard loom hidden in barrels of preserved fruit.


Devoge made Jacquard mechanism on a mechanical loom at Macclesfield Museums
Stephen Wilson was assisted in his smuggling by Claude Guillotte, a French loom mechanic from Lyon, who helped him build and set up the loom. Guillotte was later charged by the French justice in 1824 of illegally exporting the Jacquard mechanism out of France. He moved to London and set up his own loom manufacturing business. Guillotte was one of the most important Jacquard loom manufacturers along with Devoge and Co. in Manchester. There is much machinery made by Devoge at Macclesfield Museums.

In the 1832 Parliamentary enquiry into the silk industry many weavers and silk manufacturers from Macclesfield gave evidence. John Prout, a silk weaver, told the committee that Macclesfield was using Jacquards by 1824. This is a very early adoption of the Jacquard loom in the country given Stephen Wilson’s monopoly on the mechanism. The reason? Victoria Mills in Macclesfield appear to have had trade connections with Lea, Wilson and company. This explains why Macclesfield was using Jacquard mechanisms for weaving as early as 1824.

By 1835, according to the evidence given by Claude Guillotte to a Parliamentary Select Committee, there were around 7000 – 8000 Jacquard looms in this country.


Jacquard’s legacy
Joseph Marie Jacquard died in Oullins on August 7th 1834. His contribution to weaving and textiles was assured and his name was to be forever associated with his invention. But Jacquard could not have known just how influential his invention was to become.

Ada Lovelace, Wikimedia Commons
In the year of Jacquard’s death, 1834, his loom mechanism was being demonstrated to Lady Anne Milbanke and her teenage daughter. They were on a philanthropic tour of mills in the North of England. It might even have been Macclesfield where they saw the looms. The teenage girl was captivated and inspired by the mechanics of the loom, especially the use of punched cards to create the woven patterns.

She was Ada Lovelace.

The influence Jacquard’s mechanism had will be the subject of the next part in this series.