Silken Threads Tie Japan and France

Japan has been producing silk since around the third century, raising silkworms for the raw silk threads and then weaving those threads into cloth. Although it is not now regarded as a major silk producer, even as recently as a century ago, Japan was the world’s largest producer/exporter of raw silk, exporting predominately to the United States and Europe.

This prowess was aided by the fact that when Japan was industrializing in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the pre-existing cottage industry of silk production was selected for mechanization and modernization. I’ve written before about the leading role of the World Heritage-listed Tomioka Silk Mill in mechanizing the reeling of raw silk.  French advisors played a key role in the construction and earliest operation of the Tomioka Silk Mill and I have recently learned that there are even more silken threads connecting Japan and France.

While silk cloth was first developed in China, it spread from there to Korea and Japan and eventually to Europe. Each location developed its own methods of silk weaving and introduced its own refinements. France became one of Europe’s leading producers of silk cloth in the nineteenth century as it expanded sericulture (begun in the thirteenth century) and developed increasingly productive looms.

From the early sixteenth century, the city of Lyon in particular became known as an important center of the production of silk cloth.

In the early nineteenth century Joseph-Marie Charles Jacquard combined the technologies of three early weavers to create a mechanized loom that not only made weaving easier and faster but also, through the use of punched cards (said to be the forerunner of modern day computers), allowed patterns to be woven into the cloth. Such cloth is known, to this day, as Jacquard.

And this is where we see increased connections between Japan.

While French advisors were helping the Japanese to construct and learn to operate the Tomioka Silk Mill that produced raw silk for export, including to France, which had lost most of its sericulture industry to a parasitic disease known as pebrine beginning in 1855, master weavers from Kyoto traveled to Lyon to learn new weaving techniques.

While it had been their intention to learn about steam-powered looms that could industrialize weaving in the same way that silk reeling was industrializing, instead they returned with other new technologies that served to increase the artistry of their weaving craft. These includied the flying shuttle that could significant accelerate even hand weaving and Jacquard weaving techniques that enabled what I, personally, have observed to one of the most beautiful aspects of many silk kimono: a kimono made of Jacquard fabric, with a pattern woven into the fabric, that is also then dyed with an entirely different pattern, a surprising blend of two-dimensional and tactile designs then rendered even more beautiful in the garment they create.

Both the flying shuttle and Jacquard weaving also enabled women to become master weavers, a further expansion of silk production in Japan.

During the same period as the Japanese weavers were expanding their repertoire thanks to technology transfer from the French, the French weavers were supplied with Japan’s industrially-produced raw silk, which enabled them to continue weaving. As Mr. Rogers would say, “it’s always good to have a fair exchange, boys and girls.”

As a fan of Japanese woven silks, it is fascinating to visit Lyon and learn about their long and proud history of silk weaving, in which their contribution to Japanese weaving techniques a century and a half ago is still remembered to this day.

Silken threads do not break easily.

© 2022 and Vicki L. Beyer
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