One of the first objects to enthrall me in the Cooper-Hewitt collection was a small double portrait which I casually dismissed as “just another engraving.” When I learned that this meticulously detailed image of French inventor Joseph-Marie Jacquard (1752-1834) and the machine he created was, remarkably, a woven piece of fabric…I was hooked. It was Jacquard himself who developed the technology used to weave the portrait: his eponymous loom, patented in 1805, was the world’s first automated machine for weaving intricate images into silk.
Master weaver Michel-Marie Carquillat designed this extremely complex textile to demonstrate the loom’s capabilities and celebrate the brilliance of its creator. Carquillat used only black and white threads, but packed them closely enough to suggest grayscale shading. This tight interlacing combined with the fineness and luminosity of silk produces an astonishing degree of detail and creates a depth of field that gives the woven picture its three-dimensional quality. The portrait contains several thousand rows of weaving and employed Jacquard’s ingenious system of encoded punched cards which allowed the loom to feed itself precise instructions for each successive row. The cards also stored the information for reuse to replicate the pattern.
In its day, this innovation was nothing short of a miracle. Before Jacquard’s discovery, the weavers of his hometown of Lyon created their celebrated patterned silks through a painstaking process requiring a two-man team. Jacquard’s device eliminated the need for the weaver’s assistant and allowed beautiful damasks and brocades to be woven an astounding twenty-four times faster than before, delivering the French silk industry from poverty to prosperity.
Whereas status had previously been determined by birth, nineteenth –century France honored self-made entrepreneurs like Jacquard. The inventor in particular embodied the virtues of hard work, perseverance and imagination, heralding a new kind of cultural hero for the industrial age.

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