Friday, April 15, 2022

A Woven Prayer Book

An open book with grey and black pages. The lefthand page illustrates a nativity scene.
We recently added a book to our collections created using an unconventional piece of technology: the loom. Livre de Prières tissé debuted at the 1889 Paris World's Fair as a stunning example of the artistry and technological merit of Lyon's silk-weaving industry. Ours is one of only fifty or sixty copies, all woven on a Jacquard loom.

The Jacquard loom, invented earlier in the 19th century, was a partially automated weaving machine that simplified the production of intricately patterned textiles. The weaving of individual designs would depend on a sequence of punch cards, each of which would direct mechanized hooks to lift threads as a worker sent their own thread back and forth. This mechanism is considered by some to be a precursor to early programming hardware and it's useful to imagine the loom as a computer printer, building an image one row of pixels at a time. The creators of this woven prayer book - produced in Europe's silk capital of Lyon - capitalized on the Jacquard technology to effectively "print out" 58 individual pages of text and illustrations. 

Modeled on the medieval book of hours, each page of Livre de Prières tissé is a marvel of precisely woven silk thread. While finely detailed, the Jacquard technology creates an effect that strikes the modern eye as almost pixelated, imparting a visual dissonance that only grows when examined. In The Woven Prayer Book: Cocoon to Codex, Matthew J. Westerby describes this uncanny quality as occupying a place "of both familiarity and discomfort, rooted in the way it blends the look and feel of the illuminated manuscript with the tactility and luster  of woven silk, all made possible by a complicated technology." It's an odd and lovely little book, and we recommend that you come see it for yourself! 

To see Livre de Prières tissé in person, ask for Rare Book BX2113 .A1 1886. To read more about its production and sister copies in The Woven Prayer Book, ask for Rare Book BX2113 .W47 2019.