Lyon’s Canuts: The First Revolt of the Industrial Revolution

Maison des Canuts

Canut Uprising
When I first came to Lyon, I kept hearing about Canuts but it registered as Canucks. This I vaguely knew was a name for Canadians. Derogatory? Ice hockey? Of course I then associated Canuts with Cajuns or Acadians, the French who fled Canada for Louisiana. All of this has absolutely nothing to do with Canuts.

Canuts were the silk weavers of Lyon. And they are famous for several work-related things: making beautiful silk cloth, embracing the Jacquard loom–a precursor to computer technology, and organizing the first worker’s revolt of the industrial revolution. In addition, they actually owned the means of production, working and living in lofts with soaring ceilings that accommodated their own Jacquard looms.

The Maison des Canuts tells the Canut story from Croix-Rousse, the hilltop that was populated by the Canuts and their looms. The small museum is spread between two buildings and consists of a boutique where mostly silk scarves are sold, a classroom where the guided tour stops to learn about the life of the silk worm, and two galleries with fabric samples, memorabilia, and antique equipment, including a working Jacquard loom for demonstrating the weaving process.

The standard French language tour, which is given twice a day, begins in an original Canut workshop. Visitors are provided with a brief history of silk weaving in Lyon and a demonstration of the Jacquard loom. The French silk industry grew in response to the financial drain of importing silk fabric. To keep French wealth at home, silk merchants were charged under royal decree, to buy from French weavers. In addition, mulberry trees needed for silk worm production were planted throughout the warmer parts of France. When Louis XIV built Versailles, the industry kicked into high gear to meet the huge demand for silk tapestries and brocades that covered the palace’s furniture, walls, and windows. Other European royals and eventually, the new wealthy Americans would not be outdone, and a steady market for fine silk fabrics built the wealth of Lyon’s silk merchants.

French Brocade

The artisans who created the fabric benefited little and lived in poverty. Yet a new loom that would streamline the silk weaver’s work was under development when the French Revolution suddenly shut down the silk industry. The royalty and church clients who could buy silk left the country, and lost their properties and their heads. When Napolean III brought luxurious silk fabric firmly back into vogue, the Canuts had embraced the Jacquard loom and over 90,000 people worked in Lyon’s silk industry.

Joseph-Marie Jacquard, the inventor of the loom, benefited his fellow silk weavers more than himself. The king put the patent in the name of the people and paid Jacquard a small pension. But the loom revolutionized the life and industry of the Canuts. The more efficient one-man loom with the support of family and apprentices made weaving more productive and more profitable.

But the industry was marked with prescient unrest. When silk merchants began slashing pay, Canuts joined together and rebelled in 1831, demanding a fare wage. Described as the first worker revolt of the industrial revolution, the violent uprising was eventually quashed and only better economic times improved the worker’s situation. Two more revolts in response to the weaver’s exploitation by the silk merchants occurred in 1833 and 1848 (one of many worker revolts throughout Europe that year). The Canut’s actions marked the emergence of a communal worker response to capitalism — and of modern socialism, communism, and anarchism.

Silk weaving was industrialized towards the end of the 19th century. Today there is still a Croix-Rousse workshop owned by the luxury silk manufacturer Prelle that uses both antique and modern, computerized looms to create reproduction and other silk cloth. Clients for reproduction fabrics include historic properties in Europe and the US.

So, where did the Canuts get their name? According to my tour guide, a likely origin is that Canut is a form of the word canette which means spool, the small cylinder that holds silk thread.

La Maison des Canuts
10 &12 rue d’Ivry 69004 LYON-France
email: info@maisondescanuts
Check the Maison Des Canuts website for hours, fees, and additional information.