I’m back to share more highlights from my summer trip to lovely Lyon. In case you missed my first Lyon post, be sure to read about my stay in the hip and cool La Croix Rousse neighborhood. I was visiting the city with my BFF L for our mutual 60th birthdays.
While Lyon is the culinary capital of France, it is also well-known for it’s silk industry, where for five centuries Lyon’s talented canuts (silkworkers) have been perfecting their technical, social and creative prestige. In fact, the heart of the canuts district is located in Croix Rousse and the historic Maison des Canuts (now a silk museum) was just a few blocks from our AirBnb apartment.*
We booked a tour in advance of our arrival. At $7.5 euro per person, if you are a fashionista or enjoy fine silks, Maison des Canuts is well worth a visit. Just make sure you book an English speaking tour. Ooh, ooh, ooh, there is a silk shop on the premise where you can purchase beautiful scarves, shawls, blouses, etc.
Following in the footsteps of Lyon’s weavers
According to Maison des Canuts’ website, “this establishment was created by the COOPTISS (a weaving cooperative founded by Lucie Berger in 1960) and opened in 1970. At the end of the 19th century, Maison was the head office of the Syndicat des Ouvriers Tisseurs et Similaires (weavers and other similar professions trade union).”
Estelle was our guide for the tour, ready and willing to reveal Lyon’s silk industry great adventure.
She shared how silkmaking started in China more than 5000 years ago. Italy was the first producer of silk in Europe and sent Italian spies to China to discover how silk was made. In the mid 1500s when France wanted to export silk, Lyon became the center of the silk trade since it was close to Italy. The Italians came to Lyon to teach the French how to weave.
As we learned about the process of silkmaking, from creating the threads to different washing techniques to methods of weaving — I gained a new appreciation for the craft and art.
“Silk worms create cocoons of silk. Silk worms are raised like children. They only eat very clean mulberry leaves,” said Estelle.
The life of a master weaver
Next it was time to go across the street into the loom building. Estelle described the life of a Lyon weaver in the early days of silkmaking. “An apprenticeship was 10 years back,” she said. “If the apprentice passed the weaving test, he was able to buy his own loom and become a master weaver. Training began as young as 12 years old. Many worked 10-15 hours a day and were only paid when the fabric was done.”
It took a long time to make fabrics. “Two canuts wove for 23 years to make fabrics for the Palace of Versailles,” said Estelle. “For Marie Antoinette, canuts wove hundreds of colors and sometimes she didn’t like it and didn’t use it.
Estelle showed us various types of woven fabrics including a Brocade made with real gold threads that costs thousands of euro per yard and a magnificent Jacquard Velvet. Per Wikipedia, the Jacquard loom, invented by France’s Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1804, greatly simplified the process of manufacturing textiles with complex patterns.
The weaving industry today
“Today, Lyon and it’s surrounding areas continue to be the weaving leader of all EU. Jobs for this industry are largest in this area as well,” said Estelle. Ooh,ooh, ooh, Estelle told us that Princess Kate Middleton bought the silk for her wedding dress from Lyon and that silks from the region can be found on armchairs and other furniture in the White House.
There’s also a smart textile industry. “They weave plastics for airbags in cars, metallic threads for sporting goods, and nylon and other materials for medical devices,” said Estelle.
We said goodbye to Estelle and thanked her for an excellent tour. Then we headed across the street to the silk shop, where we were surrounded by brilliant colored silk fabrics and cotton weaves. It didn’t take much coaxing for the two of us to purchase silk scarves. L and I agreed that when we wear our scarves we will always remember our 60th birthday trip to France.
P.S. – There’s more to come including a tour of Vieux Lyon, the old city, and then onto Paris with a walk through the artsy Montmartre district in the 18th arrondissement.
*Note: There are other fabric museums in Lyon, including the Museum of Fabrics and Decorative Arts ( a pair of museums – one tracing the development of textile weaving and the other featuring 18th century decor in a mansion) and Atelier de la Solerie, a workshop showcasing handmade silk printing and screen painting (also in La Croix Rousse). We only had a limited time so we chose to go to Maison des Canuts. There are so many great places to visit in Lyon.