640px A Jacquard loom showing information punchcards National Museum of Scotland

The Jacquard Loom, reinventing the jacquard machine

  • September 28th, 2022

In Spring 2022, Google launched Jacquard™, a groundbreaking new tool in the emerging Internet of Things (IoT). Google’s Jacquard enhances everyday objects, clothes, and decor with new digital capabilities.

The launch has seen a lot of hype. But in all the excitement, you might wonder, “What does ‘Jacquard’ mean?”

Google named the new technology after an older technological innovation: the Jacquard loom. The Jacquard loom was a groundbreaking invention that burst onto the scene at the height of the Industrial Revolution.

In the centuries that followed, the Jacquard machine would revolutionize the textile industry, the fashion culture of Europe, and even the burgeoning field of computer science.

Today, Jacquard fabrics are the most popular choice for luxury aesthetics, whether upholstery or red carpet gowns. And giants in tech and the art world alike build on the innovations first set forth with this machine.

If you’re interested in fashion, history, or science, get ready to discover the truth about one of the 19th century’s most fascinating inventions. Read on to learn the secret history, engineering brilliance, and cultural impact of the Jacquard loom.

What are Jacquard Fabrics?

Different names around the world know jacquard fabrics. Designers may have referred to Jacquard fabrics as matelassé, brocade, or damask fabric.

Jacquard fabrics can be made from a wide range of natural and synthetic fibres. What makes a fabric "Jacquard" is the complex weave pattern.

Jacquard Weave vs Conventional Weave

The majority of fabrics are woven simply. For example, textile creators use a twill weave to make denim. A twill weave repeats a pattern of diagonal ribs throughout the fabric.

Twill weaves, like plain weaves and satin weaves, only utilize a few movements.

Creating fabrics with these weaves manually is a repetitive task, and it doesn't require much skill to learn. As a result, it was easy for early textile corporations to mass-produce these fabrics with an "army" of unskilled weavers.

In contrast, weaving a Jacquard fabric is incredibly complex to take on manually.

This is because the designs and imagery in a piece are woven directly into the fabric with different coloured threads rather than printed afterwards.

The History of Jacquard Fabrics

Jacquard fabrics got their name from Joeseph-Marie Jacquard. Jacquard was a weaver and inventor in 19th century France. This was a time of great industrial innovation in Europe.

In 1725, a different inventor, Basile Bouchon, attempted to create an automated loom. Bouchon tried to use a paper strip with holes to "code" a design.

His loom used a row of hooks. The hooks would automatically lift warp threads when they touched the paper. When the hooks reached a hole in the card, they would push through instead of raising that warp thread.

Later, inventor Jacque de Vaucanson reconfigured and simplified Bouchon's design. Falcon also increased the degree of precision the automated loom could achieve by incorporating needles into the design.

Finally, in 1804, Joeseph-Marie Jacquard adapted and elevated the automated loom.

He created a system of punch cards to encode the designs. He significantly increased the number of threads the loom could handle. And he invented a control mechanism that enabled true, automatic pattern-making.

These innovations changed the nature and sophistication of the loom itself. Napoleon Boneparte, then-emperor of France, granted Jacquard a patent on his device. It became the Jacquard loom.

The Jacquard Loom Changes the Game

The Jacquard loom was the first automated loom capable of weaving elaborate imagery or designs into fabrics. This was a game-changing event in the history of textiles.

Artisans have woven patterns and images into fabrics for centuries. Art predates the invention of the Jacquard machine. But, this type of weaving was a rare skill and a complex task.

According to historical accounts, a master weaver might spend three years creating a single garment when completing this technique by hand with a shuttle loom. The art of weaving designs into fabric is over 1000 years old.

In ancient times, silk brocade garments were highly sought-after by royalty. The empire of Byzantium gained significant wealth exporting the garments created by master weavers through the 9th century.

Yet, with the invention of the Jacquard loom, this complex weaving was no longer solely the domain of skilled artists. Nor did it take years to create a single garment.

Instead, unskilled weavers could learn to work the Jacquard loom. Once they threaded the machine, weavers only had to change out the cards and learn to control a few independent warps ends.

This still required more skill than using the dobby looms that produced most textiles. But it was significantly easier than the skill involved in developing the art of brocade.

The Impact of the Jacquard Loom on Culture

Emperor Napolean financed the production of Jacquard looms for the city of Lyon. He hoped to compete with Britain, which dominated the global textile industry.

Britain's industrial textile giants invested in mass-producing fabric the fastest way possible. This left a significant gap in the market for more elaborate fabrics.

The growing middle-class sector in Europe created a demand for more luxury goods that non-gentry could still afford.

The Jacquard loom readily filled this gap. Now, fabrics with beautiful designs and imagery were available to the (upper) middle class. This granted the city of Lyons a reputation as a source for compelling, new-luxury fabrics.

As a result of this reputation, Lyons became the destination city for fashion designers across Europe. Many chose to remain in Paris. The symbiotic relations between Lyons and Paris helped nurture the nascent art and luxury design hub.

Eventually, this relationship blossomed. As the century wore on, Paris became the international fashion capital we recognize today.

The Impact of the Jacquard Loom on Computer Science

The Jacquard loom had a tremendous impact on the field of computer science. The Science and Industry Museum in the United Kingdom cultivated an entire exhibit on the Jacquard loom in 2019.

In the exhibit, attendees could explore Jacquard's punch-card matrix to encode designs. These punch cards would either cause a thread of the loom to lift or remain draped.

Jacquard’s system essentially broke down the entire, complex design into a series of binary choices: to lift or not. This strategy—breaking down complex information into a series of binary points—formed the basis of binary code.

Binary code, in turn, became the basis of computing itself.

Ada Lovelace & Charles Babbage Develop the Analytical Engine

The Jacquard loom directly inspired the next stage in what we now see as the history of computer science. Babbage and Lovelace were mathematicians working to develop a calculating machine in the mid-nineteenth century.

The fruit of this labour was the Analytical Engine.

Lovelace wrote detailed descriptions and theoretical frameworks for the machine. In one entry, she wrote, “the Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns, just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.”

The Analytical Engine was an “infinite” calculation machine. Inspired by Jacquard, the Analytical Engine used a similar punch-card pattern system to depict an algebraic equation.

The depiction broke down the elements and viable in the equation into a set of binary choices.

The machine would run through the facets of the equation logically—in essence, answering a series of yes/no questions. Doing so, would come to the correct answer.

Babbage and Lovelace never built the Analytical Engine. Still, conceptually and theoretically, it was sound. It was, in fact, a method for creating a steam-powered general computer.

No matter the nature of the equation or analysis, the Analytical Engine could resolve it—at least in theory.

From the Analytical Engine to IBM

Much later, in the 1930s, the analyst and codebreaker Alan Turing would expand on this concept. He eventually applied it to the study of encryption and decryption.

This innovation would, eventually, facilitate the invention of networked computing—or, as we call it today, the internet.

Alongside Turing’s application, punch card technology grew in its capacity to store information and enable data processing.

By the 1950s, the International Business Machines Corporation—IBM—developed and perfected technology that made punch-card data storage ubiquitous. Eventually, though, magnetic tape replaced punch cards as the best data storage material.

Like the punch cards it replaced, the magnetic tape stored information in binary codes. Instead of a paper/hole binary choice, bits of tape were either charged or not charged. The pattern of charted/not-charged bits in 128-bit tape encoded the information.

Jacquard Fabrics Today

In the 21st century, Jacquard fabrics are popular ornamental material options. The nature of Jacquard designs can make the fabric stiff. So, it is generally most popular for upholstery, duvet covers, and drapes.

Some contemporary weavers use modern Jacquard looms with unexpected raw materials. These combinations have resulted in truly unique, soft fabrics.

Some designers have experimented with creating new, soft eco-friendly jerseys by weaving bamboo fibres through a Jacquard machine. Others use a Jacquard loom weave silkworm thread.

The silk-weaving processes result in smooth, well-insulated fabrics well-suited to coat design.

Jacquard Textile Industry: Major Exporters

While France is the Jacquard loom's birthplace, the most Jacquard fabric is produced in China and Australia. Minor Jacquard fabric exporters include the Czech Republic, Belgium, and South Asian nations.