The History of the Jacquard Loom

The Jacquard loom revolutionized the way weaving was done, by finding a way to use punch cards to automatically lower and raise individual warp yarns.

If this sounds like a lot of mumbo jumbo, allow us to explain the basic principle of weaving. Weaving, any kind of weaving, is done on a wooden frame (the loom) that is filled with vertically spun warp yarns. The weaver, standing in front of the loom, lifts a number of warp yarns (shedding) with the use of wooden heddles, creating a vertical space between the raised an un-raised warp yarns (a shed). He then pulls through the horizontal weft thread with the aid of a shuttle, and lowers the raised warp yarns, holding the weft in place. This process is repeated over and over again, with alternate warp yarns raised and lowered. Eventually, the cloth is created.

Back in the 18th Century, if the pattern became too complicated to use fixed heddles, shedding was done by a ‘drawboy’. This person, a young child most of the time, sat underneath the loom and lifted or moved a specific number of different warp yarns. The shuttle passed the weft through, and intricate patterns could be formed. How intricate the patters were, how slow the process was, and not more than 10cm of fabric could be made per day. Something needed to be done.

Joseph Marie Jacquard, the son of a French weaver from Lyon, conceived a machine that could automatically weave patterned silk at the end of the 18 th Century. Jacquard built further on earlier French inventions, and after numerous failed attempts and near-bankruptcy succeeded in building this revolutionary loom. The loom used a set of punch cards that can be read by the loom. Every warp yarn is connected to a loop, which is connected to a metal rod. The punch cards are automatically fed through the loom, and the holes in the cards only allow certain rods to pass through at any given time. Which rods are passed through, and which are not, determines which warp yarns are raised or lowered, and this in turn creates the pattern.

The technique brought a radical change to the industry, and this was not to everyone’s liking. After years of uproar in the French silk trade, the loss of jobs by the introduction of an automated loom was the last drop. During the early 1800’s, the urge to produce the finest woven silk was matched only by the equally strong tradition of uprising by the proletariat. In the end, benefits of the automated looms were too big to ignore, and the jacquard loom had the upper hand.