A Pair of 19th Century Jacquard Looms in Ontario

16 March 2022
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In the early- to mid-1800s, Scottish weavers emigrated to America, bringing skills and knowledge of revolutionary Jacquard weaving technology with them. One of those weavers—John Campbell—settled in Ontario in 1854 and went on to produce textiles for more than three decades. Jacquard weaving used perforated punch cards to “program” intricate woven patterns into fabrics ranging from fine silk damask tapestries to utilitarian cotton and wool rugs and bed linens (commonly referred to as coverlets). Although most equipment belonging to other weavers has disappeared into history, a massive Jacquard-style loom once owned by Campbell was discovered still standing in its original weaving shed in Komoka, Ontario in 1949 and preserved, along with several examples of his original textiles.

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Also still in existence are looms owned by Samuel Lowry, a weaver born near Peterborough in 1862, who ran a successful weaving business from 1884 until the early 1900s when he was unable to compete with large mills that mass produced cheaper textiles. His looms were purchased at auction in 1956 and later donated to Lang Pioneer Village Museum. After a meticulous restoration project, the Jacquard-style loom is now the star attraction at the S.W. Lowry Weaver’s Shop and Jacquard Loom Interpretive Centre at the museum.

image description: a restored 19th century loom, draped with textiles

The Lowry Jacquard Loom. Photo by Renée Homiak, Lang Pioneer Village Museum

Joseph-Marie Jacquard of Lyon, France, invented the technology that bears his name. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, “France was a hotbed of innovation and ideas in textiles and luxury goods,” says Deborah Livingston-Lowe of Upper Canada Weaving, whose master’s thesis investigates Campbell’s production, customers, and economic impact in Middlesex County. In 1804, Jacquard succeeded in synthesizing previous knowledge to produce a loom head mechanism that attached to the top of most standard looms and used a string of punched cards to give complicated instructions to the loom to make patterns known as figured work. His Jacquard head revolutionized hand weaving and spread quickly across Europe and the British Isles.

In Scotland, a derivative invention based on Jacquard’s mechanism created a thriving industry making ingrain carpets, a double woven floor covering. In the early 1800s, “there was an embargo on bringing British textile machinery and plans to the United States,” according to Livingston-Lowe, so James Lightbody, a Scottish machinist who had settled in New Jersey, manufactured what he called ingrain carpet heads, of a style similar to Jacquard’s. The Campbell and Lowry looms used this technology along with decks of punched cards to produce various types of coverlets, carpets, and horse blankets for customers throughout the areas around London and Peterborough. As Livingston-Lowe writes, “The work of producing cloth from start to finish was never the work of one person, but a community effort… The commercial weaver like Campbell participated in just the weaving, leaving the pre- and post-weaving production to his customers.”

image description: a restored 19th century loom, with fabric in mid-weaving on it

The Campbell loom.

Campbell, whose loom is housed at the Ontario Science Centre, commonly wove four specific patterns of coverlets: “Garland”, “Stars and Roses”, “Single Rose”, and “Tulip.” “The Science Centre only ever had cards for two of those four patterns,” says Hans Baer, a retired IBM software engineer and Science Centre volunteer who was instrumental in repairing their two original card decks. Baer also sourced new card stock and reverse engineered a coverlet pattern based on one of Campbell’s original Single Rose coverlets, currently housed at the Royal Ontario Museum. “It took me three years to find appropriate card material for the cards and about four weeks at home, working four to six hours every day, to draw out the pattern by hand. I then had to punch 192 pairs of cards on 2.8 mm of rigid, thick cardboard with about 150 holes per card; I could only punch six cards a day, it took months.”

image description: a man holds up a series of cards with punched holes; the cards are sewn together to create a tape

Hans Baer with his punchcards, the result of months of painstaking work. Photo courtesy of Hans Baer.

Once the cards were punched, volunteers at the Science Centre decided to weave a sesquicentennial coverlet. After an adjustment to add the text “Canada 150” to the border, “We all had a go,” says volunteer weaver Heather Brady, who also helped Baer to punch some of the cards. The coverlet was made with cotton yarn from Brassard and Sons in Québec for the warp and tabby weft, and red wool from Ontario’s Topsy Farms for the pattern weft. “We have four different patterns that we switch between now,” explains Brady, “so we don’t wear them out too fast. We’ve woven two coverlets for Mackenzie House to replace textiles on their beds and we give them to pioneer villages occasionally, but we mostly weave very slowly to preserve the loom.”

image description: a large woven fabric, with very detailed patterning in red on a white background, mounted on a wall

The Canada 150 Coverlet.

Lang Pioneer Village Museum decided to restore Lowry’s original loom—“a massive multi-stage project spanning over a decade,” according to Renée Homiak, Museum Curator at the Village—and to also build a working recreation loom. “It was essential that Lang Pioneer Village Museum not only be able to display and interpret the Jacquard loom and technology, but also to demonstrate and show people how it worked and what it looked like.” Master Weaver, loom builder, and carpenter Didier Schvartz worked on both the restoration and recreation projects. “It didn’t take long to recognize that these unique looms with rich history would need to be housed in their own building…and so the Interpretive Centre was born.” Lowry made mostly carpets on his loom; however, none of his original textiles have been positively identified. Before the pandemic, a new set of cards was created for the loom, based on a design from a fabric fragment. “Before we re-open this year, we will be putting a new warp on the loom and are hoping to begin weaving with the new punch cards,” says Homiak.

Having working looms from 19th century Ontario is something that Livingston-Lowe feels informs her practice of restoring, conserving, and making reproduction textiles today. “In addition to volunteering on the Campbell loom at the Science Centre, I started going through Keep Me Warm at Night by [Dorothy and Harold] Burnham.” The book, written by the Burnhams when they were textile curators at the Royal Ontario Museum and produced for their landmark textile exhibition in 1971, is “invaluable. It’s where everything starts, with the Burnhams and their road trips in the 1940s collecting textiles and the stories about them.” After trying to reproduce the textiles from the book, Livingston-Lowe studied with esteemed historical textile artists such as Rabbit Goody, Kate Smith, and Norman Kennedy, and started weaving on 18th and 19th Century looms. “Weaving on these old looms just changed my attitude toward weaving,” she says. “Even though I’m using modern looms, I’m still in that mind frame that I’m working on an old piece of equipment, because those old looms really teach you how to weave. It’s professional equipment from that time period when people were using it to make a living, just like John Campbell was using his loom to make a living.”
image description: a woven fabric, featuring very detailed patterning in blue on a white background

An original Campbell Coverlet. Image courtesy the Textile Museum of Canada.

image description: close-up view of a woven fabric, featuring very detailed patterning in red on a white background

Detail of an original Campbell coverlet, from the Eldon House Collection.

Jacquard loom: the ancestor of modern computing

Alongside the revolution created in the weaving industry by the invention of Jacquard’s loom mechanism, another technology grew out of the use of perforated or punched cards to “program” machines to perform complicated tasks. As argued by author James Essinger in his book Jacquard’s Web: How a Hand-Loom Led to the Birth of the Information Age, Charles Babbage, the acknowledged “father of the computer,” was directly inspired by Jacquard’s binary punch card technology, “which he freely admitted were borrowed from the Jacquard loom. The Jacquard loom was essentially a primitive computer to produce digital weavings, so that fabric could be woven with images.”

As Essinger explains, standard looms called drawlooms were ridiculously slow; the weaver could produce about two inches of fabric a day. “The Jacquard loom increased the speed by 24 times…that’s like the difference between the speed of a car and a jet aircraft.” With the help of Ada Lovelace, regarded as the world’s first computer programmer, Babbage came very close to building an “analytical machine”. One hundred and fifty years after Jacquard’s innovation, the earliest computers—or thinking machines—would be programmed using very similar cards containing a kind of binary information.

Images courtesy Ontario Science Centre, unless otherwise noted.

Copyright © Michale Raske except as indicated.

About Michale Raske

Michale Raske learned how to crochet from her talented Romanian grandmother at the age of ten. Forty-five years later she picked up knitting needles and revived her passion for all things craft and fibre. A veteran of the film and television industry, Michale now takes time away from her many WIPs to focus on writing and editing.

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