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Threads and Fabrics Gallery - Expo Paris 1889

Threads and Fabrics Gallery at the Exhibition Expo Paris 1889

In the Palais des Expositions diverses, yarns and fabrics, the latter taken from the point of view not of applications but of manufacture, form four sections: silk, wool, cotton, and yarn proper, hemp and linen. To these must be added a class devoted to the dyeing, finishing and bleaching of textile materials. It is clear what an important place these industries hold. This is only fair, since they are at the forefront of French production, both in terms of the sum of their output and the perfection of their processes.

For today we shall leave aside silk, which is well worth a visit in itself, and we shall look successively at wool, cotton, hemp and linen.


Wool was obviously the raw material for the first fabric. And yet this fabric was not a fabric, it was a felt. From the day when man, dressed in animal skins, had the idea that he could keep only the hair of these skins and do without the leather, he began to agglomerate these hairs. Nature helped him in this task; the hair being in fact not smooth and unified, as it appears to the eye, but bristling with asperities, hooks, and various unevennesses, as can be seen with a microscope.

This particularity allows the filaments to join, to unite and, under the most elementary pressure - the simple beating between two pebbles. - to form a resistant sheet. This was the first fabric. The art of spinning came only later and proceeded naturally from the art of treading.

What is a thread and especially what is a wool thread? It is a felt of infinite surface and almost infinite thickness; the principle of the interlocking of the hairs is also at work here, but it combines with twisting to give strength. This is so true that the first fabrics, which came out of the primitive looms of our ancestors, were as much like felt as cloth; a small part of the fabric was formed of crossed threads, but the greater part came from the treading, the irregularities which abounded in these coarse threads. Even today we have our fulling sheets, which are very close to the first fabrics.

Who held the first distaff, and under his nimble fingers turned the first spindle? Among all the peoples of old, the unknown innovator was put in the ranks of the gods. In any case, there was a long way from the first threads to those produced today by the spindles of our spinning machines.

Here are some of these spindles, in twenty different display cases. Some of them are covered with a thread that weighs only one kilogram by 150,000 metres. The raw material comes from Australia, the Argentine Republic or from our indigenous herds; thousands of spindles spin and unwind it. It is one of the first French industries. Then comes the weaving.
In woollen cloth we can follow the very curious evolution of human clothing among the peoples of the Aryan races, without going to look for anything in retrospective exhibitions, by passing successively from one showcase to another.

We first saw the felt of the first pastoralists. Here it is, still the same, its context lending itself to little improvement; but its use is becoming more and more rare. Let us say straight away that this felt has nothing in common with that of the hat maker. Today it is used only for indoor shoes and for industrial purposes.

Then, with the heavy, long-haired, coated, felted fabrics, we find the second period of clothing. The distaff appeared, some Isis revealed to humans the art of the spindle. The shuttleless loom, where the threads are simply passed in length, has woven heavy fabrics, and the art of the fuller of the first ages continues to be exercised to thin the fabric thus obtained.

Our real sheets, that is, apart from chevioltes and fancies, are of this second type. They are less and less in vogue, and the types shown here are hardly ever displayed except as documents. The plain cloth is dead, killed by the shaped and light fabrics. It persists, however, in the liveries, which explains why we find here real palettes of shades, formed by the juxtaposition of sheets of various colours.

But under the more skilful fingers of the spinner, the thread has become more consistent, it has been rid of parasitic filaments, the loom has been perfected. It still produces only the simple crossing. Here are the light fabrics, something like our current flannel. All Greek and Latin antiquity wore these fabrics. The Middle Ages did not wear any other body linen.

Today, after years of accusing the wool of the Middle Ages of having spread leprosy and skin diseases, we are back to
of having spread leprosy and skin diseases, we return to wool worn on the body, and flannels are more than ever in honour. However, ours is most often cross-woven and not simply woven thread by thread. This brings it closer to the modern fabrics, the fancy sheets of which there is such a rich collection. These require perfect spinning and complicated weaving, but they have dethroned all the cloths of our fathers, whose very names were taken away. It started with timid crosses of colours, and ended with alliances that make you scream. The more a sheet is mixed with different shades, the more valuable it is; and it is definitely the ugly that is the beautiful in such matters.

Nevertheless, these sheets do not represent the last word in the art of wool, which is provided by light fabrics. These are absolutely modern; it took the spinning machine to provide the fine, strong yarns of cashmere.

In recent years much attention has been paid to the manufacture of woollen fabrics, which have almost entirely replaced silk for women's clothing, and what was lost in the processing of the fabric has been regained. It is to this tendency that we owe the magnificent brocaded fabrics with large arrangements.

There is a lack of highlights in such an exhibition. What is to be admired is the general value of the fabrics on display. If the wool industry enriches three or four of our departments, it is also a credit to our country, and certainly the fabrics we find here installed in luxurious light-wooden showcases can bear comparison with their rivals in the English exhibition.


In European manufacture, the colonist is the latest arrival. It is perhaps the one that today holds the first place. But it is not so recent in human industry. In India, for centuries and centuries, it has provided fabrics and the mysterious threads of the Bramahnic bed; in Central and South America, it has been in use since the civilisations, now extinct, of the Aztecs and the Incas. If in India, where the animal was sacred and the fleece was also sacred, it provided the orthodox clothing par excellence, it provided the Mexicans with their war clothing; they made cotton cuirasses, no doubt very thick, which were proof against arrows and spears. It was through the Venetians that cotton reached Europe, where, after having fought against many prejudices, it triumphs today. It is true that it is used almost universally. First of all, see how it is spun. It is done in a completely mechanical way.

Raw, it is such as is thrown into their baskets by the workers who remove the fibrous parts of the cotton plant's capsule, then it is beaten, then carded, then combed, then it is stretched into a ribbon which will become the thread; from bench to bench, that is to say from mechanical to mechanical, the thread becomes finer and more consistent, it becomes coarse, half coarse, fine: It ends up reaching a prodigious tenacity if one wants to push the operation to the limit, 300,000 metres per kilogram; this is what we call No. 150 cotton, 125 to 130 kilograms of which would go around the globe.

Cotton has a perfect affinity for colour, and can take on any shade. But it is nevertheless in white that it finds the most use.

Madapolam, shirting, calico, percale, cretonne, etc., all cotton fabrics, white under their various names, can be related to two unique types, plain fabrics and twills; the former are by far the most numerous. Cotton is par excellence the cloth to be worn on the skin, and just as canvas had dethroned wool, it has dethroned linen... For a long time the hygiene of women, which is in conflict with that of the Faculty, repudiated cotton: it heated up, or cooled down, I don't know exactly, but it was guilty of many crimes. To bandage a wounded man with cotton meant death in the short term. Today, we are back to that and surgeons stuff their dressings with cotton wool, replacing the old lint.

Where cotton has lost ground is in light fabrics: muslin is dead, and light tarlatan is only a memory. Poor airy tarlatan, so gracefully transparent, which made dragonflies of all women, has gone to join the old snows, and Tarare, which was the capital of muslin, falls asleep mournfully in the silence of its inactive looms. I miss muslin, it was, with the light dress and the bonnet of Mimi Pinson, the joy of a whole generation, a joy that passed very quickly if you like, but it was really the fabric of pretty girls.

It is hardly if today, Tarare, which had in 1878 such a beautiful exhibition, has timidly risked one or two windows, where the muslin is only shown altered by the alloy of silk. Holy muslin, De profundis!

On the other hand, thick and solid fabrics are becoming more and more widespread. First of all, there are fabrics for tents and sails, then all kinds of cloths, then cotton sheets, that is to say, imitations of woolen fabrics.

The combination of cotton and wool in men's clothing has never been very successful, and today we have resorted to the manufacture of fabrics made entirely of cotton, but with the same characteristics as the best woollen fabrics. This is what is known as Rouen cloth. Some of these fabrics are very successful.

In the same kind of imitation, here are cotton flannels which, thanks to a special combing of the yarns used, have the feel and even some of the hygienic qualities of the real flannel. This leads us to the Thizy fleeces, strong, long-haired fabrics made in two pieces like velvet, which are then separated with a sabre. This curious manufacture makes excellent bed covers.

Hemp has been imitated in everything by cotton. But there are some fabrics for which hemp has been completely supplanted by cotton. For example, guipure curtains, which are the only white curtains that still stand up to the onslaught of draperies and stained glass windows, by which our windows are dishonoured.

As for the embroidered muslin curtain, which represented a sum of artistic work, it too is dead, and probably dead for a long time.

In the middle of the Exhibition of cotton yarns and fabrics, next to an Eiffel Tower built of reels, stands a kiosk occupied by this Dolfus-Mieg company, which is one of the glories of French industry and which we will have to talk about again when we deal with the social economy and welfare institutions. One side of this kiosk is occupied by a panel made up of 500 cotton floats of different shades.

If you count that each of these 500 shades can form about twenty neutral or derived shades, you can see what the palette of cotton is. It is infinite.

To simplify, we will simply call the product of hemp, linen, jute and various nettles yarn, and the fabric obtained with this yarn canvas. This is how they are commonly referred to, because for the people hemp and flax have remained, according to the country, the thread and the cloth par excellence.

They seem to have been entrusted with all the great missions - these old friends of humanity. The child's first nappy is made of fine linen, and the shroud, the nappy of the last cradle, will be made of linen! Twisted into a strong cable, hemp is the shroud and the halyard on the caravels of the conquistadors. It is the cloth that makes the sail of those who set out across the seas, humble fishermen from Iceland, whose melancholy story Pierre Loti tells, or intrepid discoverers of virgin Americas.

The only image of Jesus Christ that legend has preserved is the one that was printed, in the bloody hours of the hypostasis, on the handkerchief of the Veronica; and it is, to close the final despair, a rope of hemp that those disgusted with life hang on a wall, to escape into eternity.

Popular superstitions have been struck by the fact that hemp is so often found on man's path: the nomad's tent, the truck driver's tarpaulin, the little soldier's canvas gaiter, and it has not failed to be attributed a mysterious power.
A hemp ring unites couples for ever, a hemp rope around the kidneys cures pain; around the ankles, it cures gout; around the collar and a little tight, it cures everything.

Despite the tough competition from cotton, cloth still holds its own and production is still flourishing. Half of this production - which amounts to the respectable sum of 90 million francs a year - is supplied by the constituency of the Chamber of Commerce of Armentières. Lille, Cambrai, Cholet and Landerneau (sailcloth) are next in line.

The main types presented at the Palais des Expositions are table linen, bathroom linen and furnishing linen.
For table linen, canvas is without rival and the beauty of certain damask services that can be seen here cannot be matched. The fashion today is for coloured historiated services, at least for tea sets, some of which are illustrated with very pretty drawings like Watteau or Kate Grenaway. But the beautiful, really beautiful, remains the all-white service, with figures and flowers for the napkins and a composition for the tablecloths. Of the latter, three superb samples can be admired. A sleigh attacked by wolves, a wedding under Charles V, and a marvellous meal in Louis XIII costume, such are the three compositions which form the background of these tablecloths. The weaving has rendered them with great perfection. The last of these tablecloths is 5 by 3 metres. It is a superb piece.

In the battle against cotton, linen bed sheets retain the merit of their freshness. We make some that are 3 metres wide, for the use of sybarites that a seam in the middle of their sheet would bother them even more than
the fold of a rose leaf. The same showcases contain excessively fine cloth for shirts, which is nevertheless far superior to the linen and batistes of Cambrai.

The batiste handkerchief retains its rank, first with the other cloth handkerchiefs behind it. Those of Cholet have long had a reputation.

Then come the strong cloths; the coutils cloths, the slow cloths, the sail cloths, and the packing cloths, the latter ranging from the metallized and impermeable tarpaulin, solid as a sheet of metal, to the light canvas, which serves only to hold the straw of the packing.

Ropes and twines, despite numerous attempts, have always been preferred, made from hemp. There is a question of prejudice here, and I challenge any contractor, for example, to get masons to trust scaffolding supported by cotton ropes... The rope industry has been monopolised by big industry for several years now, and it would take a lot of searching, I think, to find the rope-maker who, walking backwards in front of his turnstile and singing a monotonous song, used to wire the ropes of old. Here is a factory which alone consumes 60,000 kilos of coal a day. It must be said that the ropes needed by industry today require considerable twisting and, consequently, much greater strength than manual labour.


This exhibition is basically a repetition of part of the previous three. It is the application to various fabrics of chemical methods, most of them recent, of finishing in the most varied forms. It is known that fabrics are dyed, either in threads or in pieces, for canvas and cotton, it is more or less generally the second process that is used. The fabric first has an unbleached colour from which it must be removed. This is the bleaching process. In the past, the bleaching of the fabric was left to the bleaching action of the atmosphere alone. This process is now only used for very luxurious fabrics, known as "meadow bleached". Near Voiron, for example, in the Isère region, one can see the meadows covered with large pieces of canvas exposed to the serenity of the air, which eventually gives them a perfect whiteness. The current industry uses alkalis to remove the fatty substances and chlorine to decolourise; it is possible that the quality suffers, but if all the fabrics manufactured in France had to be bleached in the meadow, the surface of our country would not be sufficient.

Cotton, which is much less red than canvas in its natural state, is always chemically bleached. After this operation comes, for fabrics that must remain white, the finishing operation.

The fabric soaked with water, or with gum, dextrin or starch or any other material, depending on the result to be obtained, is dried on a sizing machine, or on a machine whose various cylinders work, some to stretch, others to dry the fabric. After this, the fabric is given a glossy finish by the rollers, if necessary, which is also achieved with heavy calenders, and then the fabric is folded and ready to be sold.

In the case of coloured fabrics, after a more or less perfect bleaching, depending on the shade to be obtained, the piece is dyed and then finished.

In the case of light cotton fabrics, such as muslin, it has even been possible to produce the shade and the finish in one go by incorporating the dye into the starch of the finish. It goes without saying that this type of dyeing does not offer much durability.

Woolen fabrics are generally woven unbleached if they are light, sheets are woven with pre-dyed yarn, and so are fabrics available, whether they are yarn or cotton, unless they are printed.

Instead of showing results which have the disadvantage of all being somewhat similar to each other, it seems to me that the exhibitors in this class would have done better to show us a little of the processes which are very interesting.

We have to make do with it, but there is a lot to see. The printed fabrics in particular are very remarkable, both those intended for the toilet and those for furnishing. In the last twenty-five years, what we will call the semi-luxury, to be polite, has made great progress in furnishing, and one had to look for shimmering, effect and cheap dyes. This is the reason for the resurgence in the success of printed fabrics, which are presented here in small, open, beautifully set up salons.

Shirt prints have regained their popularity of a few years ago and there are some very artistic and cheerful arrangements here.

Let's end this visit with a look at some economical hangings made simply of printed wrapping cloths, it's cheap and looks great.

One more word, to give a good point to the organizers of this class. The black display cases, with exhibitors' names in red, which contain the exhibited fabrics, are both extremely simple and extremely original.

©Livre d'Or de l'Exposition - Alfred Grandin.