A mural painted on the wall of the Boulevard des Canuts
A mural painted on the wall of the Boulevard des Canuts

The French silk route

Trudging along the uphill streets of La Croix-Rousse, you reach La Maison des Canuts, a museum dedicated to the legacy of silk weaving in Lyon.

Travelling to Lyon from Paris is taking a two-hour train ride to the Medieval Ages. Of course with a soupcon of intrigue. The Old Town in Lyon’s 5th arrondissement, built at the foot of a hill is freeze-framed in the 11th century. What sets the district Vieux-Lyon apart from other European medieval cities is something unexpected and secretive: traboules.

Traboules are secret passageways built inside buildings by which people cross one street to the opposite. Now quiet, they were not in the Middle Ages when the corridors were places where craftsmen called canuts made and wove silk. This age-old labyrinth of around 400 narrow passages, staircases and corridors collectively mostly exist in the Croix-Rousse and Vieux-Lyon districts. These covered pathways were literally the lifeline of the silk industry and were used to transport goods quickly across the city. A round of arduous climbing through narrow, upwardly sloping lanes while negotiating multiple flights of stairs leads you to one such passage, where the characteristic Renaissance arches are unmissable. Though the place appears cold and desolate, the concrete walls seem to hold several stories of lives well lived, of growth, struggle and strife. Most traboules today are privately owned and serve as residences.

Trudging along the uphill streets of La Croix-Rousse, you reach La Maison des Canuts, a museum dedicated to the legacy of silk weaving in Lyon. It showcases the history and evolution of the craft through its displays over three rooms. The museum which opened in 1970 has a live demonstration session of a guide operating a 19th century Jacquard loom, as a detailed explanation on the mechanism and the nuances of warps, wefts, bobbins, and shuttles plays in the background.

Silk, the chosen fabric of monarchs and the aristocracy, has a bloody history in Lyon. Three revolutions in France centre around silk weaving here: the first canut strike in 1831 was bloody; workers were asking for minimum price for silk, which wasn’t acceptable to French Revolution laws. The second, in 1834, happened when workers’ salaries became high because the economy was prospering which made greedy silk manufacturers impose a wage decrease. It was put down ruthlessly. The third was in 1848. The revolts were a sign of changing industrial power equations and the rise of trade unions. Paradoxically, a royal fabric led to achieving workers rights and prosperity.

The last stop in the silk quarter is the spectacular mural painted on the wall of the Boulevard des Canuts. Spread over 1,200 sq ft, it is one of the largest murals and painted walls in Europe. Done in pastel hues, it depicts the typical houses of the canuts, scenes of silk weaving, a silk shop and a central staircase that adds depth to the whole piece. History looms in Lyon, accompanied by the rustle of silk.

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