January 22, 2023 1 Comment
Precursor to punch cards of early computers
Loom with Jacquard machine in use in Japan in 1955
By Susu Smythe January, 2023
I have spent the last number of years buying vintage Japanese kimono (meaning traditional clothing) and have marveled at the intricate designs woven into the silk. These include cranes and flowers and abstract patterns. The woven designs do not take center stage but are hidden treasures one finds only by looking closely at the silk. In Japan, the tradition was that one bolt of silk was woven for just one kimono and after weaving, the silk was often further decorated with hand painting (yuzen) or tie dying (shibori). Traditionally, kimono making was a cottage industry that involved a number of specialists who had a regional or individual style. The looms were small enough to fit into the weaver’s home.
Woven damask design of abstract trees from a furisode kimono
In the late 19th century, after Perry opened up Japan to the western world, Japanese weavers began adding the “Jacquard machine” to their looms.
Joseph Marie Jacquard invented the Jacquard machine around 1800 and revolutionized the weaving industry. The Jacquard machine is still used today on computerized looms to create all types of fabric, rugs and other woven items. The Jacquard machine is a box that is added to the loom to program the pattern. Jacquard realized that all decisions in weaving were binary. Cloth is made of the long threads that run the length of the bolt called the warp and intersecting threads that run the width that are called the welt. The shuttle carries the welt thread through the warp for each row or pick. A warp thread either goes over or under the weft thread. With the Jacquard machine, there is a hook for each warp (long) thread and a punch card for each row of weft (across) thread that tells each warp (long) thread to either be above or below the shuttle of weft (across) thread. The thread count is the total number of warp and weft threads within a square inch. Silk can have a thread count from 400 to 800, meaning that there will be 200 to 400 weft (across) threads per inch and therefore 200 to 400 punch cards per inch of fabric. A bolt of silk for a kimono might require 100,000 or more punch cards!
Before the Jacquard machine, the weavers created the pattern strand by strand by hand. The illustration above is a damask silk where pattern shows on both sides of the fabric. Damask originated in China in the 7th century and was sold along the silk road to the West. Damascus was one of the centers of the silk trade; hence, the name “damask”. While the Jacquard machine reduced the labor required to make damask and other weaves, it still took considerable time and skill to create the punch cards and the thread the loom.
Silk haori jacket with intricate woven design created on a Jacquard loom
The Jacquard machine was patented in 1804. Napoleon Bonaparte gave the patent to the city of Lyon and Jacquard received a pension and a royalty on each machine. The Jacquard machine was introduced to Japan from Lyon in 1873 to the Nishijin, a district of Kyoto. Nishijin was the historic center for Japanese weaving but when the capital was moved from Kyoto to Tokyo, Tokyo weavers began to gain importance. In reaction to this competition Nishijin sent weavers to France and Austria to learn Western advanced weaving techniques.
The Jacquard machine was a material contributor to the design and development of today’s computers, with its foundational use of the binary system and punch cards. The Jacquard machine is still used today for all things woven, including rugs and fabric. Today’s computers have reduced the time required to create the program for the weave from many, many months to mere minutes.
The use of the Jacquard machine developed differently in Japan than in the West. The West used it as a tool for mass production and reduction of production costs. The Japanese used it to create higher quality and more intricate designs. They incorporated it into the existing cottage industry system, adopting it to small looms. It became a tool for individual weavers to create new designs that were passed down within a family.
I remain in awe of the many, many hours and the years of skill accumulation that are embodied in functional works of art of vintage kimono.
To learn more, look at the following:
Joseph Marie Jacquard
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