Text(ile)analysis at the CIETA


Since the most ancient times, weaving is an epistemic art and an applied knowledge, and represents both a material and an intellectual technology. This double feature determines the specific relationship between the textile artefacts, the techniques employed and the tools implemented. In particular, the weave structures, which compose fabrics, can be made with different technologies and following various techniques. Crucially, by this same relationship, it is possible to go from the woven piece back in time and detect the most ancient processes of weaving production by a reverse engineering that affects the matter, the technique, the technology and the knowledge.

The study of textiles can be thus developed transversally over time and space, and over history and structure following the convergences of these different dimensions.

This issue has been explored and experimented during the technical session at CIETA – the Centre International pour l’Etude des Textiles Anciens in Lyon focused on the textile analysis.


Coordination, normalization and transfer of the textile knowledge

CIETA is one of the most ancient European institutions dedicated to the study and the preservation of historical textiles from all over the world and is situated at the Musée des Tissus et des Arts décoratifs (MT MAD) in Lyon.


The Musée des Tissus (Photo by courtesy of the MT MAD)

The goal of this international association founded in 1954 is to promote all the activities leading to a better knowledge of ancient textiles and to develop a common language, tools and methods of analysis.

Since, the CIETA’s descriptive method is in use over the world and the textile terminology elaborated, now translated in nine languages and edited in specific vocabularies, is a fundamental reference in the field. Despite the idiosyncrasies among the different traditions in weaving as well as textile studies, its analysis represents thus a kind of textile canon.

For this reason, training is at the heart of the CIETA activities and efforts since its foundation. The technical sessions welcome a growing number of participants from all over the world accepted on the basis of their profile: curators, conservators, historians and art historians, archaeologists, archivists, technicians and weavers. These sessions are organised every two years on two levels and take place in two weeks of intensive work during which the practice of the analysis is proposed to the participants starting from simple textiles (first level) to figured textiles (second level).

I took part in the first session in 2016 within the frame of my Marie Curie research project « Textile Studies between knowledge and knowhow » (University of Copenhagen and DNRF’s CTR 2014-2016) and the 2017 session has thus completed my CIETA training.


Textile technical analysis in practice

Under the expert and patient guidance of Marie-Hélène Guelton, together with about fifteen participants (amongst others one weaver from Australia) we examined fabrics from the great houses of silk trade in Lyon as well as from the MT archives.

What does this « technical practice » actually mean and what did we do?



2cm x 2cm samples of fabrics have been distributed to each participant: 28 samples during the 2nd level session and about 50 during the 1st one: from tabby, twill, satin and more complex structures derived from them (first course) to samit, drap d’or, gros de Tours liseré, taqueté, brocatelle, figured fabric with pattern wefts, damask, lampas, lampassette, droguet and dauphine or figured velvets (second session).


Simply, before proceeding to the analysis, we did not know what these textiles were.









With a lamp, a pick glass, a teasing needle, a squared notebook, a rubber and coloured pencils we tackled the task.


Watching and learning to see; unravelling, finding, separating, following and counting threads and thread ends; calculating proportions and reductions of the effects; recognizing repetitions and modularity of the pattern, observing its scale and its visual and material constraints; distinguishing the threads from their colour, looking at their undulations and at their textures; separating the fabric effects; drawing drafts and sketches, or schemas on the warp and weft section in order to make explicit the interlacing work hidden in the craft: these have been our principal activities day by day, during two weeks.


Crucially, when doing the exercise on modern fabric samples it is possible to do what actually it is forbidden in the case of a real analysis, namely to materially destroy and untangle some parts of the sample in order to deduce its intelligence: the structure, system and functioning, thread-by-thread and module-by-module. But at the same time the documentation from MT (photo macro and reproductions, items from the collections) has been a supplementary test for our increasing competencies and understanding at all levels.








Most interestingly, the complementarity of these two kinds of exercise on modern samples on one hand and historical textiles on the other shows the relationship between the technical and the intellectual work implied in the analytical practice.

The analysis concerns the material, technical, technological and historical aspects and is aimed to establish a complete and accurate description. The data thus generated by eyes, by hands, by inferencing and reasoning are finally collected and resumed in a technical file: from the provenance, localisation and attribution of the fabric, to the nature and dimensions of it, and to its technical qualification and technological realization. The dyeing and finishing processes on fibres and threads before and after weaving, and the internal construction realized at the loom are taken into account too.

This last point is particularly interesting from the PENELOPEan point of view.


The hypothetical (draw)loom

If a sample can be observed and analysed and thus its structure as well as its material particularities, the loom employed for its realization is still missing.

With which type of loom has it been made? How to connect the weaving structure to the technological functioning and set up of the machine employed?

A hypothesis about this point needs to be constructed. By principle at the CIETA, the loom is always a drawloom, as it was employed in the silk fabric production in Lyon before the invention of the famous and innovative mechanics by Jean Marie Jacquard.

Even if the samples analysed are not so old and most often realized by Jacquard or industrial looms, our hypothesis take into account and integrates the treadles and shafts work as well as that one of the weaver and of the draw-boy(s).

Old picture of the drawloom at the Maison des Canuts in Lyon


… in the hometown of Monsieur Jacquard

The intervention of external experts (one day was this year dedicated to tablet weaving with Claire Gerentet), the visit of the Musée, its collections and exhibition, and the technical tours (« visites techniques ») to the most prestigious houses of silk trade completed the sessions and provided a broaden contextualization for the textile analysis. At the Manufacture Prelle, the Maison des Canuts, the Etablissements Carlhian and Maire, and at the association Soierie vivante, it has been possible to observe the techniques and the technologies employed (from drawloom to modern industrial looms for weaving, and other finishing processes like moire) and to exchange with professional weavers and technicians.

Poster of the exhibition at the Musée des Tissus (Photo by courtesy of the MT MAD)


What is then hidden in a little piece of fabric?

It is the textile structure that signifies gestures and movements, tools and devices, logic and knowledge. This is what the CIETA technical sessions actually initiate to discover, or even better: to reconstruct. And crucially this reconstruction takes the shape of a real décryptage as an intellectual and material exercise.

My anthropological and ethnographic work in the frame of the PENELOPE project is interested in this exercise at the heart of the CIETA training and of the textile work.

Jacquard is well known in the field for the revolution of its mechanics and the impact it had on textile design, realization and production. Nevertheless, since antiquity and all over the world, complex structures and patterns have been woven with different looms. This also illustrates that no great divide can be funded on Jacquard technology alone. Much more than a historical cleavage, most often supported by the technological argument, is the continuity in technology, technique and structure and in their relationship that must be investigated.

Has Jacquard really been a point à la ligne (« full stop »)?



Flavia Carraro

I am an ethnologist and anthropologist interested in weaving, writing and codes technologies and knowledge practices

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