Recently, I found myself in the welcome shade of a traboule (those ancient covered passageways for which Lyon is famed), on the steep banks of the Croix Rousse, formerly Lyon’s silk weaving district. And as shoppers bustled by, bags in hand, making their way to the trendy boutiques below, I couldn’t help but wonder about all that these secretive alleyways must have seen and heard over the centuries gone by.
With the invention of the Jacquard loom in in 1804, tall silk weavers houses sprung up across the Croix Rousse, while the grander town houses of the wealthy silk merchants were found at the bottom of the slopes, closer to the rest of the city and of course to its two rivers the Rhône and the Saône. Exquisite silks and stunning designs were created here and travelled across the globe to exotic, regal and spectacular locations but that wasn’t without casing considerable suffering to the silk weavers of Lyon.
As I stand here, I can’t help but listen to the chatter of the many different silk weavers of yesterday, who may have paused here to catch their breath or scurried on down these passageways. There goes one, back and arms aching, already exhausted from long hours, arduous work and poor pay and nutrition, bolts of silk across his shoulders, anxious to keep that appointment with the unsavoury merchant who awaits below. Is his face etched with the worry that the divine fruits of his labour wouldn’t earn him enough to feed his family that week? And whatever his thoughts, I somehow doubt he stopped to admire the architecture or spared a thought for the spectacular views across the city as it bathes in the spring sunshine.
And is it that same impoverished worker I can hear, full of anger, hurrying to meet his brothers or his cousins as they gathered in these hidden passageways and talked of revolt in 1831? Did he know what a pivotal moment in the industrial revolution his involvement in the uprising would mark? Did his legs tremble in angry excitement and did his wife beg him not to go? And what of the days after the revolt. What happened to that silk weaver then? Did he flee back up these steps to his family, did he languish in a French prison when the army crushed the uprising or worse, did he never hurry down that passage away again?
As I climb on up the hill I come to the Maison des Canuts (the house of the silk weavers), with its huge Jacquard loom and selection of brightly coloured silks laid out. Was it in this room perhaps or one very like it, that weavers chattered excitedly in the early 19th century as word got round that another order for the Palace at Versailles had been placed? And did they discuss in awe the elaborate gold and floral brocades, the magnificent designs of bouquets with their exquisitely subtle yet lively colours and the crimson red satin destined for the Empress’s dressing room? Those silks must have seemed so obtusely opulent compared to their simple and sparse lifestyle.
Later as I watch a modern day canut hand paint the details of an intricate design in the Ateliers de Soierie while another applies huge blocks of colour, screen after screen to bring to life a vibrant, living scarf, I wonder if it was here that they made the bright red, silk velvet and gold brocade destined for Saint Petersburg. Or maybe it is the silk weavers of the late 19th and early 20th century I can hear, whispering excitedly about the rich and exotic orders for the Rothschilds and the Vanderbilts, as they carried their fabrics to and fro.
I head into the homely warmth of a nearby coffee shop, my mind turns to more recent times, when in the 1950s and 1960s the workers at the luxury silk manufactures Prelle (one of the oldest remaining in Lyon), learned that they were going to be working on an incredibly ambitious plan to reproduce some of the huge silks from the queen’s bedroom at the Palace of Fontainebleau and Louis XIV’s bedroom at Versailles. Did the Prelle weavers drift down the narrow streets of the Croix Rousse to drink coffee here and talk of the 110 different tones of colour they were going to have to use, the new skills they’d acquired when Prelle re-invented a loom to make a silk chenille which hadn’t been made for a 100 years or did they moan that they could only achieve 3 cm of work a day on this outdated loom. And did the children of those workers hurry down these steps 28 years later to celebrate the final completion of that regal project or shout excitedly over the buzz in the bar about the threads, colours and lavish designs they’d be using for the design of silks for the 2006 film Marie Antoinette?
The Croix Rousse is a place that echoes with many different voices and many extraordinary stories. There’s the fat laughter of the silk merchants, the smoky shouts from the kitchens of the feisty female cooks, there’s the hawking drifting up from the markets and the river boats and even the faint cry of Roman martyr in the distance. But above all else there’s the gentle whir and click of the weaver’s loom, the soft sound of folding silk and the whisper and snatched cry from those silk weavers who witnessed such extraordinary events and created such fascinatingly lavish masterpieces over the centuries.
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How to get there: By train from London to Lyon in just 4.5 hours.
Tourist office website: www.en.lyon-france.com