Lyon City, the capital of the Gauls, now a dynamic regional metropolis that symbolises the best in culinary specialities and listed as a Unesco World heritage site, owes a great deal to the silk merchants and « Canuts » (silk workers) of its past. The epic industrial saga of Lyon’s ‘luxury’ silk trade is engraved forever in the city’s steep old streets and the factories of the luxury brand names that are located in the surrounding area.
Lyon, the makings of a pioneering metropolis
It all began in 1536, when King François I granted the city the privilege of manufacturing silk fabric. Located at the confluence of the Rhône and the Saône, Lyon was able to tap into the raw materials (silk thread) produced in the silk-worm houses that were thriving on the banks of the numerous rivers of the Dauphiné, the Drôme and the Ardèche. As a result, a whole region prospered from the trade with, notably, the breeding of silkworms on young mulberry tree plants and the spinning and ‘throwing’ (a process involving a hydraulic-powered spinning wheel) phases of production.
Lyon was not only responsible, therefore, for making the fortunes of silk manufacturers and merchants, it also forged its own identity. and this was sometimes a painful process. Indeed, the delicate working of the silk required large numbers of labourers, who worked long hard hours in small workshops that adjoined poor lodgings perched on the hill-side: these labourer-weavers were known as ‘Canuts’.
Their destiny is eternally present in the typical narrow streets, stairways and covered passageways (known as ‘traboules’) of the Croix Rousse district. The story of the ‘Canuts’ is still told through the famous puppet show that focuses on an emblematic, shrewd and mischievous character: ‘Guignol’!
In the 18th century, the Lyon’ silk trade was at its peak.
The invention of mechanised weaving (by Jacquard, a native of Lyon, in 1804), however, which preceded the violent, social uprising of the ‘Canuts’ between 1831 and 1834, the replacement of traditional hand-labour with factory production (and the ensuing regional relocation of these factories) and finally the advent of artificial silk in 1889, meant that a decline was inevitable. Lyon and its surrounding region was nevertheless able to find new sources of strength in other synergies, as the former prosperity of the silk trade had provided a platform for the development of other professions, and most notably the chemical activity (with the need for dyeing), which has since blossomed into a powerful pharmaceutical industry boasting renowned research centres.
Most importantly, the textile sector has been able to diversify into a cutting-edge industry: high-tech textiles. High-performance artificial textiles (such as Kevlar and carbon) can be obtained from composite membranes, and are used in multiple applications within every activity sector: from high-tech building to micro-surgery !
And all this has been achieved whilst retaining and enlarging on the profession’s noble characteristics, an essential ingredient in the luxury fabric niche. In turn this has resulted in innovations in the photoengraving printing process, thereby giving more scope to the talents of designers. The local artists and decorators still use the film-screen printing method when working for the biggest names in fashion (such as Hermès). Although the ‘Maison des Canuts’ (the Canuts’ Museum) exhibition is currently closed, the Musée du Tissu et des Arts Décoratifs (the Decorative Arts and Fabrics Museum) covers this part of Lyon’ heritage as well as the developments seen in the sector.
Lyon and its radius of influence (which stretches as far as Bourgoin-Jallieu in the Isère department) therefore remains firmly anchored in the luxury textile furnishings and fashion clothing sectors, and especially ‘haute couture’. Further evidence of Lyon’ cultural standing: the Université de la Mode (Fashion University), the Centre Français du Textile (French Textile Center), the network of innovative businesses, the « vintage » fashion week (end of March) and the leading international professional lingerie exhibition (September).
City of Lyon and Shopping ideas
It is hardly surprising then that Lyon is also a shoppers’ paradise, with the « Carré d’Or » on the Bellecour square (well-known brand boutiques) and most notably the Thiaffait passageway: a ‘traboule’ since converted into a « fashion village », where you move between artists’ workshops, fashion parades and exhibitions.
Connoisseurs will head for the Atelier de Soierie (Silk Trade Workshop) in rue Romarin, a sort of factory/shop owned by the Brochier company – a supplier for major designers in Paris – where one can buy unique items at exceptional prices (discarded cuttings).
You can then celebrate these « bargains » by visiting the historic district of Saint-Jean (opposite the hill that is home to the Croix-Rousse district) and savour « cochonnailles » (a speciality cold pork dish) and local wines in the city’s famous « bouchons » (cafés and restaurants).
Clearly the makings of an extremely full programme!