Lyon, with its bistros, bouchons and boulangeries, may be known as the food capital of the world, but there’s another area in which the city is renowned, and that’s in its silk weaving heritage.
During the 19th century, Lyon’s silk and textile industry was the biggest source of employment in the region, and the livelihood of half the city’s population was reliant on its sale. Thousands of tonnes of silk were made in Lyon each year, and its popularity shaped the very foundations of the city as we see it today.
While Lyon’s gastronomy presents the biggest distraction in the city, the history of its illustrious silk industry is a joy to explore and discover during a river cruise on the Rhône. The impact and influence of the silk trade can be traced in a handful of fascinating heritage centres across Lyon, providing a charming glimpse into the history of this ever-surprising and captivating French city.
If you’ve a passion for history and are keen to discover what else the “world capital of gastronomy” has to offer besides fine food, join us as we shine a light on Lyon’s silk weaving history, and explore some of its best silk-weaving heritage sites.
Remembering Lyon’s Silk Weaving Past
Lyon’s silk weaving legacy began in 1466, when Louis XI chose the city as a base for a proposed silk weaving industry. On the lucrative trading route of the Rhône, which granted direct access to the Mediterranean, Lyon was viewed as the perfect place for silk production — offering quick access to the renowned Italian silk-trading centres of Lucca, Genoa, Venice, Florence and Valencia.
Though Lyon’s silk industry achieved success during the reign of Louis XI, it blossomed in later years thanks to the shrewdness of Francis I. In 1535, Francis granted a royal charter to two Italian silk merchants to build a school in Lyon where young French girls could learn how to weave silk. The gamble paid off, and Lyon swiftly became the centre of silk production in France, with the king granting the city a monopoly in silk production in 1540.
By the 17th century, Lyon’s silk industry had grown exponentially, overtaking Valencia as the European capital of silk. Lyon’s skilled silk workers were responsible for changing French fashions, and abandoned the traditional methods of oriental weaving in favour of their own unique style, which emphasised landscapes and showed greater intricacy than original Chinese fabrics. In 1620, there were over 10,000 silk looms in Lyon, and new silk weaving technologies were introduced regularly — further helping the city standout as the silk-weaving centre of the world.
Sadly, during the French Revolution of the 18th century, Lyon’s silk weaving industry was brought to its knees by war and poverty. Many of the city’s weavers fled the city or were killed, and by 1797, the textile industry had lost around 90% of its workforce, leaving the industry in a state of near-collapse.
In the years that followed, silk weaving remerged as the major industry in Lyon, thanks in part to Bonaparte’s special interest in the regeneration of the city’s profitable trade. As industrialisation swept across Western Europe, Lyon’s silk trade was back at full force by the 1820s, and many other countries, including the UK, sought inspiration from the fine silks produced by the city’s masterful silk weavers.
Today, Lyon’s silk weaving industry is still very much alive, and a number of traditional weavers still exist across the city, producing silk as it would have been made over five centuries ago. The city is home to a number of small, independent haberdasheries selling fine Lyonnais silk goods, giving you the opportunity to invest in a little piece of French history.
Discover Lyon’s Silk Weaving Legacy
Look past its tempting patisseries and cosy bouchons, and Lyon’s illustrious silk trade is evident in its industrial architecture and beautiful former silk weavers’ houses. Remnants of the city’s glorious silk industry can still be discovered today, and there are a number of heritage sites offering insight into the history of the silk trade.
Here, we explore a handful of Lyon’s best silk weaving heritage sites.
Colline de la Croix-Rousse
An entire neighbourhood it may be, but the arrondissement of Colline de la Croix-Rousse was at the centre of Lyon’s early silk trade, making it an essential must-see during a visit to the city. Built on the slopes of Croix-Rousse, this neighbourhood provided quick access to the Saône River, so was favoured by Lyon’s weavers. The most unique aspect of Colline de la Croix-Rousse is its ‘traboules’, a series of tunnels and passageways once used by weavers to quickly reach the waters of the river.
Maison des Canuts
To unravel Lyon’s silk weaving heritage in one fell swoop, make for the wonderful Maison des Canuts, a charming museum which tells the story of the city’s silk trade over the past five centuries. Complete with a range of full-size looms from every era of Lyon’s silk weaving timeline, Maison des Canuts is essential for those who want to get to grips with the city’s silk weaving history. Guided tours are available in English, so you can enjoy every aspect of this fascinating heritage centre.
L’Atelier de Soierie
If you’re interested in buying authentic Lyonnais silk, as well as finding out about its history, head to L’Atelier de Soieirie, a traditional silk shop in Lyon’s historic Colline de la Croix-Rousse neighbourhood. The owners of this charming silk shop make every scarf and garment using traditional weaving methods, and you can watch the process in action at the rear of the store. The silk goods don’t come cheap here, but if you want to invest in genuine Lyonnais fabric, there’s no better place.
At Emerald Waterways, our Sensations of Southern France river cruise will transport you to the historic banks of Lyon in blissful comfort and luxury, giving you the opportunity to take in all that the city has to offer. To browse our complete range of river cruises, visit the homepage or call us on 0808 278 7149.
Image credits: Flickr Creative Commons: Fred PO, Plaesu Dariana