Textile technology: Joseph-Marie Jacquard and the loom that changed the world

room in which there are rows of machinery

Between 1801 and 1806, French weaver Joseph-Marie Jacquard developed a machine that was then seen as one of the most important technological advancements in history: the Jacquard Loom.

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.

Joseph-Marie Jacquard was born in Lyons in 1752, from a family of weavers. At the time, weaving not only required a skilled weaver to manage the loom, but also another professional, called a drawboy, who sat next to the weaver and moved the threads according to the design of the cloth.

Familiar with the process, Jacquared understood that, in order to make the most from the business, it was key to make these movements automatic.

On inheriting the family business, he devoted his time to studying and developing a new machine that could make the weaving process faster and more profitable. Jacquard worked on his invention at the end of the 1700s, but was interrupted by the French Revolution.

After the revolution, he went back to his project and developed a machine that he presented in Paris in 1804. There, his invention was patented 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 holes 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.

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Thanks to the system on which it was based, the loom could create highly complex designs and patterns, in which new colours could be used and marvellous patterns developed.

Jacquard’s invention revolutionised the textile industry, and was also fundamental for a more general technological advancement. The Jacquard loom cut back on the amount of human labour, and also allowed for patterns to be stored on these cards and then repeated over and over again to achieve the same product. 

Therefore, the jacquard loom allowed patterns and motifs to be saved, on cards that could be archived and re-used, reducing time, labour and costs. 

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Since the system followed a mathematical algorithm, some have argued that the jacquard loom holds many similarities with computers. In fact, both machines work by storing and organising information, creating a shared technological language that runs through the machine itself, allowing reproduction and, of course, widening the possibilities of communication.

By Marta Franceschini, European Fashion Heritage Association


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Feature image: Salle de tissage à la Jacquard, Société industrielle de Mulhouse, Bibliothèque nationale de France, No Copyright – Other Known Legal Restrictions

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