Nov 5, 2015
Art, Grant Reports

With great pleasure, I submit my report on my summer project “Hands on History” supported by the Office of the Provost & the Vice Provost of the Arts. The project took me to two different places, each with strong histories of silk textile production; the goal was to document both historical and on-going production. I selected these purposefully, with a view to using the results in my own research, but more importantly, in teaching in Islamic Art and in a course projected for autumn 2016, Art, Commodity, and the Making of the Modern World.

Florence, Fondazione Arte della Seta Lisio.
I spent a week at the Fondazione training in the historical techniques and technologies used in the weaving of compound silks in the late medieval and early modern periods. Innovations in loom technology between the eleventh and fourteenth century and the resulting machine—called a pattern harness and operated in series of 0s and 1s—transformed the making of luxury textiles. In turn, the early nineteenth-century invention of the Jacquard loom, which uses punch-cards similar to those in an early computer, mechanized the process further still and was one of the drivers of the industrial revolution.

We looked at the series of intermediary steps that led to the initial invention of the pattern harness, though the path from simple to complex looms has not been adequately elucidated. We spent some time working with finished compound silks, learning to work backward from the object to the type of loom that produced it. We looked at a Medici velvet—very fine, fifteenth century—of which I got excellent microscope images. We also looked at the fabrics which evolved in Italy and France between the fifteenth and eighteenth century and which took advantage of new technologies, too, in silk reeling and twisting.

Later in the week, we observed weaving at the Fondazione, which has fifteen working Jacquard-head looms, set up for lampas and velvet. I worked especially with one of the velvet looms (please see photo) and with the woman, Marina, who was weaving it. We looked at how the tension for the different colors as the threads were absorbed in the fabric (please see photo of creel); the actions for beating and cutting; and also how the cloth beam had to be adjusted in order to not damage the finished fabric.

We also observed one of Lisio’s senior weavers, Marta, who makes specially commissioned fabrics for the fashion house Fendi. Because she was in fact working on a one of their proprietary projects, we were not allowed to photograph or video. Happily, there are commercially produced videos by Lisio itself that show the same process (though not this particular fabric). I will use three of these in teaching this term—figured velvet, brocaded satin, and figured and brocaded velvet—to show differences in labor, material and finished goods (these three structures were also used by the Ottomans, the focus of a course I am teaching this semester).

I was lucky in my colleagues at Lisio. We were led by Eva Basile, and among our number was a business woman who is working to set up factories for new & reproduction textiles in India, a curator at the Swedish Military Museum in Stockholm, and an anthropologist who is working at the Danish National Textile project, studying the human body and the loom.

Whilst in Florence, I also met with my colleague Luca Mola (European University Institute, Fiesole) to consult with him about Ottoman-Turkish terminology (my research) in Venetian documents (his research). We also shared information about the vast flow of luxury textile between the polities, with special attention to compound silks.

Result: Certification in Historical Techniques and Technologies; videos of velvet weaving and brocaded satin weaving; photos of textiles; photos of looms and other equipment (punching machines, thread creels, reeling machines).

Second part: Lyon, Musée des Tissus and the quarter of Croix Rouge.
I worked at the Musée des Tissus in Lyon for three days and also went to see some of the historic weaving workshops in the north of the city, in the quarter of the Croix Rouge. In the former, I did my own research on the collection of Ottoman velvets, of which the museum has dozens of examples, almost all unpublished. Among the objects was a piece of upholstery that retained its original backing; this is rare and perhaps unique and moves my research substantially ahead because it shows the technological relationship between plain and decorated silks (please see photo). During a day when the museum was closed, I visited an atelier in the old city (Soierie de Saint Georges) and talked to the director about making devouré, a kind of velvet which is made using synthetic fibers to which acid is applied in order to make the motifs.

In the quarter of the Croix Rouge, I took photographs of a seventeenth-century loom dating from the pre-Jacquard period. I will use these in teaching, as the patterning machine is believed to be similar to that used in the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere in the Islamic world. It will also be useful in the planned course on commodities, as textiles will form a main focus.

I also spent some time making a short video of one of the passamenterie machines installed in a town in a nearby region (Puy-en-Velay). The one in question makes a lace ribbon and dates from the very end of the nineteenth century. The machine is installed in an area that had a strong tradition in lace-making, where it complemented rather than replaced the individual workers.

Result: photos and videos for teaching; photos and completed analysis for my next book.

A voided figured velvet being woven at Lisio, with its shuttle.
A voided figured velvet being woven at Lisio, with its shuttle.

Amanda Phillips
McIntire Department of Art

Featured Image: In the workshop at Lisio, the creel for the velvet warps which allows each yarn to be used at a different rate.