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What is Jacquard? - The History of Jacquard Looms & Weaving

What is Jacquard? - The History of Jacquard Looms & Weaving

Woven Jacquard fabric, since its invention, is named so due to the style of weaving that forms it. The style is known as Jacquard weaving, which enables almost any loom to hoist self-reliant warp (vertical) threads methodically for generating a textured pattern. Two sets of yarns, vertical and horizontal (wefts) are interlaced such that they cross each other at the right angle, which is the typical weaving process done on a loom.


Threading a Jacquard loom requires much labour, which is why weavers thread looms only once. Succeeding warps are attached to the prevalent warp with the help of a joining robot functioning to tie each different thread. Re-threading even for a small loom usually takes many days. In this context, the term ‘Jacquard’ is not restricted to a loom but extends to refer to an additional control mechanism automating the fabric pattern.


While today the process of weaving Jacquard is automated, the historical scene was not so efficient. To handle it, a few significant inventions were invented, of which one was the Jacquard loom. This loom gives unique control on interlacing 700 warp threads, which gives rise to many distinct patterns. Because jacquard is a weaving style rather than a material type to be more precise, several fibres are used to generate jacquard textiles, such as acrylic and cotton.


Before the Jacquard Loom

Since ancient times and until the introduction of Jacquard’s loom, raised patterns for fabrics were mostly made by hand. Although hands had a role to play, they were used for running a drawloom that implemented a lengthy and labour-intensive process. The machine also had limited capability of generating complex patterns. For pulling purpose, heddles with warp ends were chosen manually by a draw boy or a secondary operator who worked with the weaver.


Until the early 18th century, the European weaving industry was traditional enough to continue with the manual method followed by hundreds of years. For creating broad finished textiles, thin lengths of fabric were woven by hand after which warp threads were tightly extended across the frame of a loom. This was followed by rising and lowering through the harness of loom due to which weft threads could be woven in between.


While this process came up with elaborate textured patterns and colourful designs, it was time-consuming. It could not give one more than 10cm of fabric each day.


The year 1725 marked the first but remarkable improvement of draw loom by a French silk worker. His name was Basile Bouchon, and he introduced a technique wherein perforated band of paper was utilised to generate a pattern. A constant roll of paper was manually punched, in chunks, each of which indicated one press or lash. The number of shots in each repetition of the pattern determined the required roll’s length. However, Bouchon’s loom was not so fortunate, as it was only capable of handling a relatively small number of warp threads.


Basile Bouchon's Semi-automated Loom 1725, on display at CNAM, Paris, France


This limitation was overcome in 1728 by Bouchon's assistant, Jean Baptiste Falcon, who was also an expert silk weaver of Lyon. For handling more warp threads automatically, the expert introduced a loom attachment wherein a chain of several punched cards replaced the paper punched roll. This deflected several rows of hooks at once. This improved loom was humbly successful.


Jean Baptiste Falcon's Semi-automated Loom 1728, on display at CNAM, Paris, France


A French inventor of automated mechanical toys, Jacques de Vaucanson, attempted to automate Bouchon’s loom. His mechanism removed the complex system of cords and weights for selecting the warp threads to be raised. However, his mechanism was fairly unsuccessful. It failed to handle enough warp threads for making enough complicated patterns, considering the cost of the mechanism. Vaucanson's loom also used a punched roll system from Bouchon's loom, rather than the more robust punch card setup of Falcon's loom.


Vaucanson's Automated Loom 1745, on display at CNAM, Paris, France


The same principle was implemented in the power loom of Edmund Cartwright designed in 1785 and adopted by the England’s budding cotton industry. The invention of John Kay’s flying shuttle in 1733 also contributed to the introduction of power loom that was commercially successful. Cartwright's loom was infeasible, but the underlying ideas were further developed in Manchester.


Vaucanson’s mechanism was the starting point for the Jacquard loom. Joseph Marie Jacquard started working on the Vaucanson's failed design to rectify it. After giving many years to it, he came up with a working prototype in 1790.


As bigger mechanised looms continued to replace hand weavers during this time, an explosion of woven items was witnessed in the trade markets of America and Europe. Because they were produced in bulk, these items were inexpensive. Nevertheless, the novel mechanised looms could not beat the skilled labour needed for producing fabrics containing anything, except for a simple pattern like stripes.


By 1793, the Industrial Revolution was at its top level due to which Jacquard was forced to leave his work. However, after battling together his fellow citizens in the protection of the new French Republic, he started working again in 1801, just after Napoleon came into power. In the same year, he discovered the Jacquard loom as an improvement of draw-loom and showcased at an exhibition in the Louvre to win a bronze medal. This new revolutionary loom was believed to spread mass production against costlier and more complicated designs, thus enabling even complicated patterns to be woven into cloth automatically at the rate of generating a plain fabric.


From 1830 to 1870s, both handlooms and power looms boomed with the introduction of the Roberts Loom in 1830 and semi-automatic Lancashire loom in 1841. The latter allows a weaver to operate six looms simultaneously. Finally, for simple patterns, the power loom proved to be more affordable than the hand loom for complex patterning with a Jacquard head. However, tasks were still given to handloom weavers up to 1870s.


The Weaving Technology of Jacquard Loom

The Jacquard loom was an extension of Vaucanson’s loom that allowed for more rapid as well as an efficient production of patterns. This made textured patterned fabrics available to more consumers at a lower price.


Jacquard's Automated Loom Design, on display at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester England


The improvement underlying this loom was encoded punch cards that regulated the weaving process such that any intended pattern was automatically reproduced. A similar but less complicated punch card setup was previously seen with Falon's loom, which was a far more suitable setup for the working environment. A torn card could be easily and cheaply replaced with a new car. A tear in one of the paper roll setups, however, often meant a new roll was required. Also, the linked punched card setup allowed for much larger designs, not having the roll dictate the maximum length.


The needed design is encoded or prearranged as a cluster of punched holes onto a sequence of associated pasteboard cards. Each card holds a line of holes, which is also a row of a weave. Each sequence of rectangular cards forms a grid of columns and rows when linked.


The machine enabled each warp thread to function separately. Some prefixed combination of punched holes in a row via a separate card facilitated the desired needles or sprung rods to go by the card and hoist a few threads. The associated cards formed a loop, which paved the way for repeated patterns. The sequence starts again, once all cards are used.


By mixing any number of associated cards in a loop, the loom showed its ability to weave patterns that were highly complex. These patterns quickly became famous for bed coverings and tablecloths. Along with textile designs having repeated small patterns, Jacquard obtained the limelight for its intricate figurative covers reflecting a big design that is woven in multiple colours.


Jacquard was behind proving his new invention due to which he decided to weave his portrait. He believed that this would show how to have or copy such a complex image. He finally weaved his silk portrait in black and white, still preserved as his notable craftwork. This was fabricated with the help of 10,000 cards.


During 1803, Jacquard was again called to Paris for showing another version of his original design. Well, this second wooden model has the Jacquard attachment or Jacquard mechanism attached atop the frame. The attachment was a device linking the loom to a compatible constant roll of coupled punch cards. This revolutionary method of ‘programming’ a loom allowed the machine to generate damasks, brocades, tapestries, and other intricately woven fabrics of silk more rapidly than the manual mechanism.


Jacquard's binary punch card system is considered an essential step in the history of computing. The designs retained for generations could now be easily woven on another loom. Finally, Jacquard’s machine was detained and openly burned. After the inventor’s death, news of his new engine spread to England after which its details were smuggled. Based on these details, its creation was quickly taken up in Spitalfields, which soon resulted in more Jacquard looms than what was in Lyon.


The initial Jacquard looms were created from hardwood frames with artificial work of iron. In the 19th century, Huguenots such as William Folliott and Zephirin Devoge mastered the art of making such machines and harnesses for the looms. The build size was now not limited, as the weaver’s ability was now not needed to handle the increased weight of harness and power.


Jacquard Weaving: From Mechanical to Electrical

Initially, the Jacquard looms were motor-driven or mechanical, a draw loom being the perfect example. The designs were stocked in a set of punch cards that were associated with each other to create a continuous chain.


The early loom machines were small but could control a few warp ends independently as well as at once. This gave rise to the need of several repeats across the width of the loom. With larger capacity machines, control was greater, and repeats were less. This made it possible to weave larger designs across the width.


With a mechanical loom, the weaving process demanded much labour and time, as mentioned above. It not only was a slow process but a restricted one, as it limited pattern complexity. Such a loom works when the punched cards are associated together, with having several holes. Each hold keeps in touch with a Bolus hook that is either up or down for lifting or reducing the harness. This is how it carries the warp thread such that the weft yarn remains below or above it.


The series of lifted and dropped threads generated a pattern. Each hook could be linked via a harness to several threads, which enabled multiple copies of a pattern. For example, a loom with a 500 hook head may possess five threads joined to each hook to give a fabric which is 2500 warp ends wide with five repeats of weaving.


By adding an attachment, like of Joseph Jacquard to a mechanical loom, boosted versatility, as well as diversity, is added to the weaving process. It also facilitates greater control over the warp.


Usually, jacquard weaving is costlier, as its mechanisms are likely to give faults than dobby shedding. Further, the looms run slow, and down-time rises, as time is consumed in changing the constant chain of cards if the design is modified. This is why mechanical Jacquards are preferred for weaving bigger batches.


It was in 1983 that the first electronic Jacquard loom was launched. The modern technology came up with more substantial capacity looms wherein only a single end warp control can expand to over 10,000 ends. This removes the need of repeats and subsequently almost unlimited flexibility.


The electronic looms are computer-controlled ones, which considerably bring down the time required for changing the designs. As a result, they can handle smaller batches quite efficiently. These machines do not possess punched cards but have too many hooks.


However, electronic Jacquards are expensive, and they may be infeasible for large batch sizes and smaller designs. The more significant machines with single end warp control are costly. So, they are only chosen if great versatility or highly specialised design is needed. Such looms are ideal for boosting the versatility of the niche linen weaving in the West.



Interestingly, the Jacquard loom did not become immediately popular. In fact, several French weavers had opposed it. It took some years to accept this new machine. Although several improvements are made to the original loom, it is in use even today for weaving several textiles for upholstery fabrics. It is inevitable to conclude that the loom has revolutionised the process of Jacquard weaving, especially with computerised attachment.