Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Learning in Lyon

At the confluence of the Saône and Rhone Rivers lies the city of Lyon. After Paris, Lyon is the next largest city in France. With a completely different character, Lyon was altogether fascinating, and the source of much new learning for me.

Guide books will tell you that Lyon is the gastronomic center of France. That may be--but we found other things of interest. The Lyonnais must enjoy humor--note all the people standing on balconies on this building. Notice anything unusual? YES--they are painted on the building. A marvelous example of a trompe l'oeil mural. The painting is called La Fresque des Lyonnais. Our guide pointed out the names of the various people depicted, including dead and living famous Lyonnais. Sorry--I don't recall any of the names now (but the link above will tell you...if you read French). Apparently, this wall is one of several around the city, all painted to fool the viewer.

Next stop for learning was La Maison des Canuts; canuts were the Lyonnais silk workers. Now, I recall having raised silkworms as a kid. Didn't we all? Anyway, growing up in then Northern Rhodesia, I had a shoebox with silkworms in it, while I attended boarding school. The silkworm moths laid eggs, which hatched into tiny worms which fed voraciously on mulberry leaves--only mulberry leaves. Then, when the worms were fully grown, they spun a cocoon with the fine silk. I can even remember the process of taking a cocoon, and unwinding it--a long strand of silk.

That recollection came flooding back as we toured La Maison des Canuts, a kind of working museum. We had a demonstration of weaving before and after--silk looms, before and after Joseph Marie Jacquard invented a programmable loom. "Before" looms looked the one shown below--a confusing tangle of threads, which to a silk weaver (a canut) would dictate the pattern. Looms required two workers to operate, one to apply pressure on pedals to raise the mechanism that separate the parallel threads that made up the warp, and the other to throw the shuttle for the weft--the bobbins with the actual colored silk for the design--back and forth. Understandably, it was a tedious process. A day's work might yield an inch or two of patterned silk.

Weaving was largely a cottage industry. Workers lived and worked in the same space. The primary requirement was a ceiling high enough to accommodate the size of the loom. What Jacquard did for silk weaving was make it possible to have a programmable pattern. He studied some early efforts to achieve this goal, and developed a loom that revolutionized silk weaving. With his invention, production output soared. Napoleon was so pleased with Jacquard's invention that he gave him an absolute monopoly on loom production, solidifying Lyon as the silk center of his empire.

Look at the photo above. If you have been around computers for a long time, it may look hauntingly familiar. While we were listening to the woman in the silk museum as she demonstrated the Jacquard loom, I kept staring at the program cloth. It looked so much like an old time computer program that I kept thinking--the Jacquard loom must be a pre-cursor to the earliest computers. Of course, I had to wait until I got home to check it out--and, voila,
here is an explanation. In fact, Jacquard's invention was inspiration for Babbage's machine, and--as they say--"the rest is history."

Once a bolt of silk was woven, it had to be taken to the control board for weighing. NO moisture was the goal, partly because moisture adversely affects silk--as anyone who has ever been caught in the rain wearing a silk blouse knows--and partly because the buyer did not want to pay for water.

Solution? Covered passageways for canuts to hurry through, carrying their silk down to the river for sale. These passageways, while not unique in European cities, have a particular character in Lyon. They are called traboules.

Not all of the passageways are covered, but they all seemed to have steps. Since the silk industry was centered in the Croix-Rousse hill, steps were a necessity to get from the top of the hill to the bottom where the river was.

Many of the passageways are hidden--a seasoned Lyonnais would know where the passageway entrances are. I asked our guide if these passageways featured in the French resistance--absolutely. With Lyon a center for Nazi activity--remember
Klaus Barbie--the French resistance used the traboules effectively as they were pursued by the SS.

One last word on the canuts--these hardworking weavers mounted what might be seen as one of the first job actions in work history. Actually, there were three separate revolts by the Canuts.

Working conditions were difficult at best, and salaries were dropping. The silk workers tried to establish a fixed price for their goods. In what was almost a classic worker/ management standoff, the workers united in solidarity. Their rallying cry: Live free working, or die fighting...
Certainly has a modern ring to it, doesn't it.


Jayne said...

Such fascinating history. I LOVE that painted building with the people on the balcony and could have stood there staring for a long time!

Leslie Patterson said...

Thanks again for showing me an excursion I missed out on. Great photos. I loved Lyon and hope I get to visit again. Have you read Kathryn Harrison's Poison, which begins with a family raising silk worms in Spain during the Inquisition?

Anvilcloud said...

No silkworms in my past. Did I miss much?

Ginnie said...

What an amazing city. I was especially taken with the amusing trompe l'oeil procedure used on the building !

discount coupons said...

It just a fabulous..

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

A very informative posting of some remarkable interesting things in Lyon. I knew none of this until now.

When are you going to write something about some delicious food you ate?