The Silk Road

On a recent trip visiting a friend in Lyons, I had the opportunity to explore the silk museum, La Maison des Canuts, in the hilly Croix-Rousse area of the city. Lyons has been the European capital of silk manufacturing since the 18th century. The combination of its situation on the Saone and Rhone rivers made it possible for trades to flourish and for the reputation of the city to develop.

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The ‘Canuts’ as they were known in Lyons were the master weavers at the heart of the silk industry. They would employ highly skilled craftsmen and women who were involved in the various processes in making silk fabrics such as satin, damasks and brocades. The silk workers would be lodged and fed in their master’s home-cum-workshop. The Canuts would have up to six looms and would supervise the work while weaving for hours a day to complete the many orders from the merchants.

IMG_3394Walking in the narrow streets in Croix-Rousse neighbourhood, I could easily imagine the scenes from the past with noise and intensity of different people’s activities: women cleaning the many cocoons and reeling out metres and metres of the fine thread, the tedious twisting of the raw silk to turn it into yarns, the constant stirring of the dyeing vats to produce new colours, the smells of the dyestuffs coming from the courtyards, the noisy clanking of the loom mechanism constantly going for hours every day, the flickering light from the oil lamps in the workshops in the evening…the chatting of the men and women after a long day’s work, the young apprentices’ footsteps echoing in the narrow lanes as they run errands for their masters. Even the buildings themselves in Lyons have an intriguing architecture with arcades and tunnels linking houses so that the bolts of fabric could be moved from place to place without being exposed to the elements.

I could picture the merchants paying a visit to the Canuts to IMG_3387discuss the fabric designs and to place their orders. The artisans and apprentices would then busy themselves preparing the threads and the looms so that a few meters of silk cloth could be made per day. The craftswomen would combine and shuttle through the shiny gold threads to create intricate passementeries that would later adorn the elaborate garments made for the aristocrats of the European courts. Silk trimmings would also embellish the interiors of churches and mansions where silk panels would cover walls of châteaux throughout France and beyond.

The poignant contrast of the hard-working artisans living in quite harsh conditions as opposed to the leisurely and privileged lives of the aristocracy and churchmen struck me quite powerfully.

Seeing all these different stages depicted in the museum, I was awed by the power of Nature combined with human ingenuity. How impressive it is I thought they way the humble silkworm fed on the mulberry leaves can spawn the thread that becomes fabric of such finesse and beauty once the Canuts and other artisans have worked their magic.

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