18th Century Silk Damasks

18th Century Silk Damasks
April 1, 2015 Richard Humphries

In today’s modern world of computer driven machinery where the digital programming of weaving looms is the norm, it is amazing to think that little over 200 years ago Jacquard’s programmable invention for the loom had yet to be invented.

You can read about Jacquard’s weaving revolution here

The skill of the draw loom

So prior to the invention of the Jacquard in 1801 how did the pattern get put into a damask cloth? If we think about the modern Jacquard looms of today we can create the most elaborate textures with relative ease compared to the 18th Century and earlier when the draw loom was employed.

The Draw loom was a device attributed to the Chinese silk makers of most exotic costumes and draperies of centuries earlier.  The loom was elaborate with harnessing reaching up to above the loom with interacting cords which were pre-tied for each lift of warp threads required in a pattern. To operate the loom the weaver would employ the “draw boy” usually his apprentice son who would learn to pull the cords required for the pattern.  The “draws” of the pattern could take months or even longer to pre tie before the loom was deemed ready to weave.

Draw loom

Image: Illustration of a draw loom, taken from ‘Une tradition, la soierie de Lyon by J Gontier’

With the silk trade’s journey along the silk route from China to the continent, the Italians perfected the use of the draw loom creating large double motif bold damasks. The richness of the qualities achieved even today remains unsurpassed. Whilst the ability of this weaving gradually spread to northern Italy to Lucca and Florence before France took claim of producing Europe’s most beautiful and desirable silks, which was centred in and on the city of Lyon. This was a trade which the Huguenots dominated with their ability to weave the most complex silks.

Hatfield House Damask


Image: Lady Sailsbury pictured with a Humphries Weaving re weave of an 18th Century Damask (C) Hatfield House

In England our expertise in textiles lay with wool and the making of fine plains which were then decorated with rich embroideries in wool or sometimes silken threads. But things were to change with unrest for the Protestants resulting in the revocation of the Edict of Nance in 1685.  This proved to be such a great turning point for the fortunes of the British weaving trade. Our ability to weave figured cloths  such as damask were due to the “strangers” arriving in England to escape persecution who perfected their trade with skill not seen before that time. Draw loom cloths emerged from Spitalfields and primarily Norwich and quickly the French Immigrants made their presence felt as they were welcomed into our craft guilds.

The setting up of draw looms was a slow and tedious business with months of stringing the draw boy’s pulls in order to create a design. Families would trade on the same design for as long as the pattern remained popular. The patterns were handed onto the next generation and a family would be known for a particular damask cloth . Jacquard’s new invention would change this tradition as designs and cloth images could be replicated more easily, and led to the demise of the draw loom and all the skills required to use it.

Explore more sumptuous damasks in our figured fabric gallery