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The Weavers

( Originally Published 1930 )



Through all the romance of weaving and design runs the tale of the weavers. They are not always in the lime-light, these busy people of a half submerged class, but at times come to the front of the stage and endow their work with an interest deeply human.

To go back to very early textiles, there were the able Coptic weavers who were producing exquisite work in tapestry stitch from the beginning of our era, all through the Roman Empire and into the Mohammedan domination. They were weaving when the Romans came and took possession of their land and their freedom. The conquerors, not slow to appreciate the value of their work, attached them as part of the plunder, and thus the Coptic weavers were made slaves—not slaves under the lash, merely owned, so that their work might belong to the master. Increase in production, yes, for the new invaders wanted cloths and clothing, but it must be that they were happy, to produce such joyous works as some of the Coptic weavings in wool—and yes, also in silk, that rarest material which ships and camels brought sparingly from immeasurable distance.

The weavers of Sicily—drawn from India, Persia and Byzantium came to the fore in the Mohammedan dominance, and grew to such fame that they were coaxed away after Moorish power faded and Italian power arose. It was Lucca who drew them to herself in the Thirteenth Century, when silk culture was established in Italy, and Lucca was not only a city but a State, including all the country around. That made of the weavers adventurers and travelers, and, plucking them from the arabesques and interlacing of Mohammedan thought, threw them into the wealth of design flowing from the Far East and then being developed through Gothic and Byzantine art into the Renaissance.

Thus it has ever been, large bodies of able weavers, removed from their native land, effecting a tremendous change in the centers of textile production. Lucca had the famed Sicilian weavers but a short time, however, for in 1315, only fifty years after their coming, they were enticed away by the Florentines. It was probably with gay step that they went, for all the world of artists and intellectuals turned to Florence, the first city of the great awakening. The designs then were going through transitions and attaining the general character we miscall Gothic. How came the word? Not from intention to designate the Goths who long ago had ceased invasions and had been absorbed, but to de-scribe the Germans and the French and others of the North who had evolved the style of the great cathedrals.

The history of Flanders is deeply concerned with weavers, especially the weavers of wool. That little country has ever been a morsel desired of kings. Its ownership or control figures in war after war. Especially did the wars of religion affect its weaving population. All through the second half of the Sixteenth Century Europe was the battle-ground of Protestant and Catholic. Burnings and massacres took place whenever religious zeal or political ambition was gratified thereby. The famous Edict of Nantes was issued by France's great king, Henry IV (of Navarre). He being born a Protestant, yet called to rule over France, followed the way of least resistance and declared him-self a Catholic. But in the hope of lessening the sickening conflict he published in 1598 the Edict, which gave Protestants the right to worship in their own manner undisturbed, but before that many weavers had fled, some to Kent in England.

It was Louis XIV who in 1685 revoked the Edict,and then came a rush of the Protestant weavers to Flanders. Many looms being in the north of France, and guilds of weavers being existent in Flanders it was natural to turn for safety to this sure and sympathetic country. The effect on Flanders was to increase her trade and her production but by this means France lost her ablest weavers. This was the time, we remember, when Louis XIV was using the best artists and weavers in France at the Royal Factory of the Gobelins and in Lyons. Those he lost to Flanders, and to England, to the enrichment of those countries.

England under the Tudors was busy with looms. The nation's rulers saw the prosperity of the country in the hands of the weaver. Incredible. Yet it illustrates the importance of the man at the loom.

Elizabeth founded on this industry the commerce of the nation, building on an ingenious scheme. Her merchant marine was seriously inaugurated that she might have her own carriers from the ports of the Mediterranean and further East, and that she might send her ships out loaded with English cloth.

Captains of vessels had strict orders to dispose of these cargoes in wholesale if possible, but if necessary to force a piece at a time on the foreign merchants for their own personal use. Woolen hangings and drapings, woolen covers for beds and cushions then became the mode in Europe for those who found silk too dear. The raising of sheep grew apace for their fleecy wool, and dyes were sought. Asiatic dyes were unquestionably good, but with financial prudence Elizabeth set her people to find them at less cost. So it came that the forests and valleys of Virginia were scientifically searched for vegetation or minerals of durable and pleasing color. In Cromwell's time England's textile industry required a cloth' fleet, and of broadcloth alone twenty thousand bales a year were exported by means of these vessels.

Lyons came early to the fore as a center for the weaving of silks. We hear of weavers there as early as 145o under Charles VII, and of many more under the wise direction of Henri IV. Under the latter the looms grew to twelve thousand. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes reduced this number to three thousand. The coming of those weavers to England, flying before persecution, caused the establishment of the Spitalfields looms, which are even today the center of Britain's silk industry. Lyons today has over three hundred thousand weavers and dyers and other textile workers. After the French Revolution they again began to gather there, and when Jacquard's loom was invented shortly after 1800 the number greatly in-creased. This loom lightened labor, but increased the amount of production, so more weavers were required.



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