How Jacquard Changed Fabrics—and Technology—Forever

Hear the word jacquard, and a beautiful, sumptuous piece of fabric may come to mind—luxurious curtains, or a chic dress. But what exactly is jacquard? A jacquard is any fabric woven on a Jacquard loom, which weaves the pattern directly into the material. It can be any pattern, color, or fiber, and it never involves printing, embroidering, or dyeing. Silk, linen, cotton, wool—any of these materials can be jacquard as long as they are woven through the jacquard process.

Read on to learn more about the history of jacquard weaving—and how its development ushered in a new world of woven textiles.

Schumacher Japura Forest

The dense, leafy pattern of Japura Forest is created through a combination of intricate jacquard weave structures.

The History of Jacquard

Historically, weaving a pattern into fabric was a slow, grueling and dangerous process that produced a mere two inches of fabric per day. Master weavers helmed manual looms, and instructed young assistants—called “draw boys”—to climb on top of the looms and move the threads following a specific pattern. The weaving reeds were heavy, and the draw boys were often injured or crippled by lifting more than half their body weight in machinery. In the 1760s, Jean Charles Jacquard, a well-known and respected master weaver in Lyon, France, who employed his son, Joseph Marie Jacquard, as his draw boy, realized that the hard work was too much, and sent Jacquard Jr. to apprentice with bookbinders and printers.

As Jacquard Jr. grew up and married, he dabbled in various professions, including real estate, cutlery-making and the military. After the French Revolution, he started inventing and hoped to create a loom that could operate without a draw boy. Building on the existing technology of other state-of-the-art looms at the time, Jacquard developed an automated system that used a chain of punched cards to create a sequence. The cards told the loom which threads to raise at a specific time to produce the weave, and each card corresponded to a row of the fabric’s design.

A 19th-century engraving illustrates the punch-card weaving process

A pair of 1858 engravings illustrates the punched-card weaving technique developed by Joseph Marie Jacquard.

General Research Division, The New York Public Library.
History of Jacquard: A woven portrait of the technique's inventor, J. M. Jacquard

Based on a painting by Claude Bonnefond, this 1839 portrait of Joseph Marie Jacquard was woven in silk on a jacquard loom. It demonstrates the remarkable level of detail made possible by Jacquard’s invention, and required 24,000 punched cards to create.


A Groundbreaking Innovation

In 1805, Napoleon visited Lyon, where he was given a demonstration of Jacquard’s loom. Immediately realizing its potential, the emperor granted Jacquard a patent and invited him to Paris to mass-produce the loom.

The invention of the jacquard process was one of the most important developments in the history of woven textiles. For the first time, weavers could produce patterns of seemingly limitless complexity on a mass scale. The jacquard technique can also be used to produce brocades and damasks, which once required endless hours of painstaking labor to weave by hand. With the advent of the jacquard loom, these fabrics were no longer reserved for society’s elite.

Jacquard’s punched-card technique also had implications outside the world of textiles. His pioneering design was a great source of inspiration for Charles Babbage, who invented the first mechanical computer in the 1820s.

Schumacher Arbor Forest in Slate Blue

Arbor Forest in Slate Blue features graceful woodland creatures in lavish cut velvet against a background of jacquard-woven flowers.

In 1983, the first electronic jacquard machine was put into operation; Today, the entire process is computerized. Jacquard has graced the runways of countless fashion designers, including Marc Jacobs and Diane von Furstenberg, while the strength of jacquard makes it ideal for all sorts of interior uses, from pillows and furniture to drapery and bedding.

Shop a few more of our favorite jacquard fabrics below.

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