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Jacquard Fabric: Here’s Your 101 Explainer

Jul 11, 2023Jul 11, 2023

By Anna Elise Anderson

Most designers work with lush jacquard fabrics at some point in their careers. Known for their durability, complex patterns, and ornate beauty, jacquards have remained popular since their invention in the early 1800s. But what makes jacquard fabric so special? In short, it’s all about the process.

The term jacquard doesn’t refer to a specific material, print, or pattern, but rather a method of creating raised motifs in fabric by using a particular type of loom—the jacquard loom. While most fabrics are woven before colors and designs are added, jacquard prints and patterns are woven directly into the fabric as it’s being made. In other words, what makes jacquard upholstery unique is that the complex patterns are an integral part of the fabric itself, not decorative accents added later. That means cotton jacquard patterns, for example, are less likely to warp or fade over time compared to designs that are simply printed onto cotton fabric.

Sarah Henry, executive director of Paris-based luxury textile brand La Manufacture Cogolin, explains that this method results in a fabric that is “higher quality and much more special than [one that is] printed.” Another special characteristic of jacquard fabric, she adds, is that it “can blend graphic patterns with textures, or simply be a texture.” What’s more, jacquard can be created from almost any type of fabric, from luxurious silks and organic linens to simple cotton textiles.

LaVenus, a new chair from Ginori 1735’s Domus collection, features a jacquard fabric produced with Rubelli.

Jacquard upholstery has been celebrated since its rise to popularity in the early 1800s. Now well-known and sought-after because of its uniquely textural surfaces and luxe connotations, jacquard can be spotted in a wide variety of interior styles, from elegant couches and upholstered banquettes to intricately patterned throw pillows, and regal, metallic jacquard place mats. Textile artists and globally recognized, pattern-friendly fashion designers like Diane Von Furstenberg frequently create using jacquard and damask prints; Marc Jacobs even teaches a MasterClass about using jacquards in fashion design. “Jacquard weaving adds a delicious complexity to fabrics, which brings a unique dimension to rooms and upholstery,” says Randy Kemper, partner and head of design at Ingrao, Inc., an architecture and design firm based in New York City. “They have their place in history, but what’s great is that the technique adds texture to solid fabrics, making them essential for modern interiors.”

“I use jacquards most often for upholstery—the sumptuous intricacy of their weave makes for a beautiful yet refined look,” says designer Jonathan Savage, head of the Nashville-based Savage Interior Design. “Jacquards are a great material for upholstering chairs and other furniture because they’re very structured. They don’t wrinkle or look messy, which makes them ideal for creating clean-lined interiors and more formal spaces.” He tends to favor contemporary, organic jacquard patterns like Intuition by Zimmer + Rohde, a linen-cotton blend jacquard featuring sketch-like brush strokes arranged in crisscrossing angles. “Unique graphic patterns feel more modern to me than old-school damask jacquards”—that is, double-sided jacquards woven with threads of contrasting luster—“but both can work in modern spaces if the use is limited. My advice would be to not overdo it!” he says.

As a curtain, this jacquard textile by La Manufacture Cogolin lets in just enough light to reveal the construction of its weave.

There are many high-end decor companies and well-established textile brands that specialize in jacquard weaving and working with jacquard fabrics as well. La Manufacture Cogolin, for instance, offers sophisticated jacquard area rugs that blend velvet with thicker yarns and higher pile heights to create elevated, three-dimensional texture. The company’s long history of jacquard weaving in Paris dates back to the 1920s. “Today, we weave our rugs on 19th-century jacquard handlooms that we previously used for weaving fabric,” says Henry. “In the 1960s we modified our looms to be able to weave jacquard patterned rugs on the looms, which is much faster than making the hand-knotted rugs that we had been producing up to that point. This switch permitted the company to remain economically viable while most of the French textile industry disappeared.”

Named after its French inventor, Joseph Marie Jacquard, the jacquard loom was one of the most impactful inventions in history. It essentially automated the more efficient production of sturdy, elaborately patterned fabrics—what we now call jacquard fabrics—and forever changed the way we decorate ourselves and our world.

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The first loom that made it possible to create patterns in silk fabrics was called the drawloom, and it most likely originated in China around the second century BC. Long before the invention of the jacquard loom, traders from East Asia were believed to have brought drawlooms to Italy’s silk-working centers during the Middle Ages. Though the drawloom allowed the raising and lowering of individual warp threads to incorporate different color weft threads (a feature necessary for producing visible patterns in the fabric), the process required intense concentration and nuanced labor, as well as multiple weavers (a minimum of two people) working in collaboration, including a “drawboy” to manually lift and lower the warp threads throughout the weaving process.

Before the invention of the jacquard loom (sometimes called the jacquard machine or jacquard mechanism) around 1800, the European method of weaving patterns and colors into fabrics (to create what’s called brocade) was a time-consuming, difficult, and even dangerous process. The finished fabric was also very expensive, because the decorative work was primarily done by hand. That meant that colorful, patterned fabrics were available only to the wealthiest members of European society: Elegant brocades in vibrant colors could only be found in the wardrobes of kings and queens, or featured in ballroom curtains and palatial decor.

In fact, for a long time, most fabrics—even those without elaborate patterns and multiple colors—were created by hand (and thus very expensive). When English inventor Edmund Cartwright patented a new, mechanized power loom in 1785—a key step in the Industrial Revolution’s transformation of the weaving industry—the process of creating fabrics for basic clothing and decor needs soon became quicker, easier, and more affordable than ever before. But these larger, industrialized looms were focused on mass production of simple, plain fabrics, rather than ones that were elaborately decorated, textural, patterned, or multicolored.

French silk weaver Joseph Marie Jacquard invented the jacquard loom, which is still used today.

Enter Joseph Marie Charles, known as Jacquard—the Napoleonic-era French silk weaver recognized for inventing what we now call the jacquard loom. Several books have been written paying homage to the legacy of his invention, including British author James Essinger’s 2004 book Jacquard's Web: How a Hand Loom Led to the Birth of the Information Age, which details the 200-year evolution of Jacquard’s ideas—from their earliest origins to their impacts on society today. In it, Essinger states that Jacquard sought to “revolutionize the speed with which the silk weavers of his home town, the great French city of Lyon, could create the most beautiful decorated silk fabrics the world had ever seen.” But first, the technology needed to evolve. “He had to invent a completely new kind of machine: a loom that was capable of being programmed,” Essinger writes. Achieving this would require replacing the second weaver, or drawboy, who raised and lowered warp threads to create patterns. But instead of creating a different loom to accommodate each possible pattern someone might want to weave into fabric, he considered the potential of creating an automated weaving machine that could be altered, or adjusted, according to the different designs potential buyers might desire.

Jacquard acquired his first loom patent for the design in 1800, which he entered into an exhibition of industrial products the following year (the second annual Exposition des Produits de L’industrie Française). Though the contraption received an award, Jacquard’s loom as we know it wasn’t fully conceived until a few years later. In response to a prompt for the invention of an automated device to weave fishing nets, Jacquard created a loom that did just that, which he showed at the next Paris exposition in 1802. The success of that second invention brought Jacquard support, new funding, and exposure to a series of similar inventions that would ultimately inspire him to perfect the jacquard loom. By 1804 the jacquard loom as we know it had been patented and declared public property. Jacquard earned a lifetime pension and royalty on loom sales, as well as the respect of Napoleon, who visited Jacquard in Lyon to see the invention for himself.

A weaver operates a jacquard power loom in the 1960s.

It isn’t simply that Jacquard’s invention has yielded many covetable fabrics since its inception. What made the loom so valuable—and revolutionary—was its apparently limitless design flexibility. Weavers can “program” the loom via interchangeable punch cards, each featuring small holes that serve as instructions for creating specific patterns. The process works much like a player piano: Cards fed into the jacquard mechanism at the top of the loom control which warp threads are raised throughout the weaving process, allowing for easy and accurate replication of almost any pattern imaginable. The creative possibilities enabled by Jacquard’s machine are still being explored in upholstery fabric and fashion design today.

Jacquard looms use the patterns punched on a card to automatically weave complex fabric designs. (This one dates to 1898.)

But perhaps even more fascinating are the loom’s long-lasting impacts on other industries: The punch card system Jacquard introduced in 1804 later served as a major source of inspiration for British polymath Charles Babbage, who invented the world’s first mechanical computer in the 1820s. In Jacquard’s Web, Essinger recounts how Babbage was fascinated by the “adorable contrivance which at once gave an almost boundless extent to the art of weaving” and sought to purchase a particular sample of jacquard silk he’d seen on exhibition in London: a detailed portrait of Jacquard himself, woven using a jacquard loom.

Aware of the innovative punch card concept that made the loom so adaptable, he wanted to examine the sample in the hopes of applying it to a totally different field: mathematical calculation. “Babbage saw that just as Jacquard’s loom employed punched cards to control the action of small, narrow, circular metal rods which in turn governed the action of individual warp threads, he himself could use the same principle to control the positions of small, narrow, circular metal rods that would govern the settings of cogwheels carrying out various functions in his calculating machine,” Essinger explains.

Vitali jacquard by Pierre Frey

Many historians contend that the jacquard loom led directly to the advent of computer programming, thanks to its revolutionary use of binary code (hole vs. no hole, or punched vs. not punched) to facilitate communication between human and machine. Converting Jacquard’s ideas to the realm of mathematics, Babbage used the punch card principle to design an early mechanical calculator in the 1820s, which he called the “difference engine.” He continued to develop his ideas inspired by Jacquard, eventually creating what’s considered the first modern computer design, called the “analytical engine.”

Ada Lovelace, the brilliant mathematician and pioneering computer programmer, praised the analytical engine’s adaptability, describing how it “weaves algebraic patterns, just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.” It was Lovelace who proposed expanding the concept even further, suggesting that the machine might not only manipulate numbers and calculate quantities, but may be adapted to represent all kinds of data in the future—an early description of what we now call computer programming.

Babbage’s and Lovelace’s predictions were never fully realized in their lifetimes, but their work, inspired by Jacquard’s revolutionary loom, laid the foundations for some of the most fundamental developments in modern computing. It’s a marvelous example of how the past is woven, inextricably, into the designs of the future. The results of Jacquard’s ambition to invent a simpler weaving method have expanded exponentially over the centuries, changing not only the way we dress and decorate our homes, but also the way we think, communicate, and live.

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