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The History of a Jacquard Machine

 

In 1804 a Lyon silk weaver named Joseph Marie Jacquard perfected a century of technological development with a device that utilized punch cards to create pictorial designs in woven cloth. A series of vertical hooks inside the machine rest over a series of metal bars called knives and are controlled by horizontal wires with a spring on one end and a needle that protrudes from a board on the other. When the punch card is brought against the needle board, any needles that contact solid card are pushed back and the hook they control is moved away from the knife. Any needles that encounter a hole in the card remain in place over the knife. When the knife is raised, all the hooks that were left in place are caught by the knife and carried up with it. Fastened to the lower end of each hook is a harness cord called a leash which passes through the comber board, down to the warp below. When a hook is raised so is its leash and the warp yarns it controls. The Jacquard machine allows a single weaver to quickly create figured designs and quickly change patterns due to the interchangeable chains of punch cards. Watch an explanatory video from the Victoria & Albert Museum here.

The single-lift 500 hook Jacquard head that I work with is a rare surviving example dating from the 1860s and may be the oldest operating machine privately owned in North America. It was purchased by Roy Orr in the 1990s from Ian Dale of Angus Handloom Weavers in Scotland. Ian is one of the last handloom linen damask weavers in Scotland and the head was a spare that had been kept in the shop for parts. Roy imported the head, harness, and an 1880s piano cutter for card punching to his home in the states where he mounted it on a modern made handloom. His harness and loom were built for weaving figured coverlets and Roy produced many beautifully crafted pieces. In 2019 Roy decided it was time to pass on his equipment, and thanks to some dedicated friends and a little luck, it came to reside in my farmhouse garret.

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What sets this loom apart from the way many Jacquards are used is the double harness. As Jacquard machines were made ever larger their hook number increased, giving them the ability to work full harness, with each hook controlling an individual warp yarn. The early lower capacity machines were often used in conjunction with a ground harness, the Jacquard lifting groups of warp yarns in a figure harness while the actual weave structure was created by a separate pressure harness. My loom operates on the early double harness system, the Jacquard figure harness lifting pairs of warp yarns that are also individually controlled by a four-leaf ground harness.

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After getting acquainted with the Jacquard machine and loom as configured by Roy, I transferred head and harness to an early loom that descended in the Hurd family of Shelton, Connecticut. The unique joinery, use of hewn timber, and decorative features including chamfers with lamb's tongue stops likely date its construction to ca. 1725–1750. While there is no evidence that this loom had ever been used for this type of work in the past, the depth between the warp beam and the breast beam is extremely long, making it ideal for figured weaving. The four post loom frame is exceptionally sturdy, rugged enough to carry the weight of the mechanism. Despite having been built an ocean apart, the two pieces are perfectly suited to one another. 

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The earliest figured weaving carried out in America was likely accomplished through the use of draw looms, barrel looms, or one of the other devices at use in Europe in the late 18th–early 19th centuries. Scotch ingrain carpet and doublecloth coverlets were already being woven before the first Jacquard machine arrived in the United States in Philadelphia in 1825. Modifications to Jacquard's design were adapted and patented for handweaving throughout the 1830s and 1840s to suit the demands of professional fancy weavers who saw new opportunities in weaving goods that American powerlooms could not yet produce. While my Jacquard machine is of a style intended for linen damask weaving and was built during the waning years of figured coverlet weaving, it's application for this use is part of a long tradition of adapting technology to keep handweaving relevant. It's a real honor to steward such an important piece of our textile past for the future.