Fashion, Technology…and Lace!?

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal about the resurgence of lace being used on the runways again sparked a thought about how lace has been influential in so many ways.  It’s astonishing really, when you think about it, since lace is the ultimate luxury fabric: too light and ephemeral to lend warmth or protection to the wearer, easily damaged, and the good stuff is quite expensive.

The production of lace was actually something that drove the development of a new technology that ultimately proved to have far-reaching consequences not just for fashion and the textile industry, but also for computing and technology.

Despite the apparel industry’s relatively laggard uptake of new technologies, fashion has actually had a long history of moving forward and being moved forward by emerging new technologies.  In fact, one of the earliest inventions that helped define computer science and computers in general was a machine designed for  the textile sector of the fashion industry, the Jacquard loom.

Invented by Joseph Jacquard in 1804-05, the Jacquard loom was a pivotal invention for both fashion and computing.   It proved to be the impetus for the tech revolution of the textile industry and an important step in the history of computing.  The Jacquard loom (which is actually a misnomer, as this invention is actually not a loom, but rather a head or an attachment that can be used with a range of different looms) was the first machine which used punch cards as a control mechanism.

After the ‘hanging chad’ incident in Florida during the 2000 presidential elections, we all know what punch cards are: pieces of wood or paper with holes punched in them, where the precise pattern of the holes contain data when read through a machine capable of reading them.  They are a form of data storage and have been used to store computer programs.

Like the voter ballots, the Jacquard loom also used punch cards that contained information, or data, about different lace patterns.  Each hole controlled a needle, threaded with up to 4 warp ends (or threads).  A set of punch cards might control as many as 400 needles, for a total of 1600 warp ends in a given textile, and the machine could make up to 4 repeats of the pattern across the weft.

By changing out the punch cards, a loom operator could change the lace pattern which the loom could produce.  This meant that looms suddenly had the ability to create many different patterns on the same loom, simply by changing out the punch cards.

This was an important advance for fashion, since in the past lace had been made primarily by intensive hand methods. With the Jacquard loom, instead of a lace maker creating only a few inches of lace a day, he could now create feet and even yards of it, in some fairly complicated patterns.

This was also an important advance for computing hardware.  The Jacquard loom had the ability to have its program of lace pattern changed by simply swapping out the punch card sets.  While the Jacquard loom machine did not perform computation using its punch cards, this is still considered an important precursor to what would eventually become the field of computer programming.

The invention of the Jacquard loom had a far-reaching impact on the use of lace in fashion, as it was suddenly more affordable.   There was a renewed interest of lace as a trim by the fashionable elite, and a greater number of people could wear the new machine-lace because it was less expensive than the handmade needle laces.

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