Jacquard looms, and a Pi simulator

I’m not alone at Pi Towers (hi Lorna! Hi Rachel!) in being a textiles nerd. There’s a 200-year-old cushion made of strips of worn-out Regency clothes (which nobody is allowed to sit on) in my living room; Mandarin sleeves I’ve rescued from rummage bins in Hong Kong and framed on the walls, and a rotation of vintage wedding kimonos and obis that hang up at the end of the hall. I have a theory about textile art being considered domestic, female art – and therefore, for cultural reasons I don’t care for very much, deprecated in comparison with other sorts of art, and a hell of a lot cheaper per square foot than paintings or prints in frames. If you’ve got a big wall to decorate, you could do a lot worse than hitting eBay and wallowing in kimonos.

What’s all this got to do with Raspberry Pi?

In case you hadn’t already noticed, I am also a computing history nerd. Last weekend I spent several hours in the Fashion Museum in Bath, thinking tranquil thoughts about Spitalfields silk, Jacquard looms, and the way some of these beautiful textiles relate directly to the history of programming. The Jacquard process for weaving was invented in the early 1800s; and we get excited about them because Jacquard looms were the very first programmable machines used in manufacturing.

paisley shawl

This shawl, from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, was woven in 1840 on a Jacquard loom. Click through for a zoomable image; the detail is phenomenal.

Punchcards were threaded together and fed into the loom, each card full of holes representing one line of weaving. It was a flexible system: your chain of cards could be as long or as short as was needed, and to weave a different pattern on the loom, you could simply swap out the set of cards. Imposing that flexibility on a mechanical system was a completely novel concept, and those punch cards were a first step on the road to what became the computer programming that all those of you with Raspberry Pis are familiar with. (Charles Babbage used the Jacquard punch card concept around forty years after the invention of the Jacquard process to store programs in the Analytical Engine – and they’re still not obsolete. Those American voting machines that cause so much controversy were still employing punch cards in the 2012 election.)

Jacquard loom and cards

Punch cards in use on a Jacquard loom

It can be hard to visualise the relationship between the holes in the cards you can see above, and the individual lines that create the pattern on the brocade you can see next to them. So Macclesfield Silk Museum (which I have only just found out about, and am going to make a beeline for next time I’m in Cheshire) put a Raspberry Pi to work to make this demonstration model for museum visitors.

Today, textile professionals can buy specialised software for designing and producing Jacquard fabrics: a direct line of descent from Joseph Marie Jacquard’s two-century old innovation. (Check out this blog post from Florence, where you can see some modern examples of fabrics woven using modern Jacquard software.)

Joseph Marie Jacquard - a portrait woven in very fine silk on a Jacquard loom in 1839. 24,000 punch cards, each with 1050 positions, were used to weave this portrait, which is in the collection of the Science Museum in London.

Joseph Marie Jacquard – a portrait woven in very fine silk on a Jacquard loom in 1839. 24,000 punch cards, each with 1050 positions, were used to weave this portrait, which is in the collection of the Science Museum in London.

Next time you’re out shopping for curtain fabric, or buying intricately woven cushion covers, step back for a moment and think about the computing history you’re holding in your hands. Computing’s everywhere.


ukscone avatar

If you are into fabric & clothes & stuff you should take a run across to Leicester area & visit ALL THE MUSEUMS plus a side trip to Coalville http://www.nsct.org.uk/docs/18/The%20Fashion%20Gallery/

Liz Upton avatar

Thanks Scone: noted!

ukscone avatar

I just discovered http://www.knittingtogether.org.uk/homeca5e.html?cat=594 (virtual museum) which looks good. pity they closed Wygston House Museum of Costume :( many hours wasted there when i was a nipper (day at museum or day at school + homework? no brainer really :) )

Ian Andrews avatar

Here is a nice clip from the 1978 BBC series of James Burke’s “Connections”, where he talks about punched cards and the Jacquard Loom


I couldn’t find the whole programme on Youtube, which is a shame as it’s really interesting, and goes on to show how they were adapted for taking the American Census and ultimately as a program / data storage medium on computers.


ukscone avatar

Connections was a great series. I think I still have VHS videos of it somewhere & the books from the series

Liz Upton avatar

That’s wonderful – I’m a little too young to remember the programme, but having watched that clip I’ve been furiously Googling for more! (And isn’t it disappointing how little educational TV these days is this rigorous? I know kids today who’d kill for this sort of TV show.)

Ian Andrews avatar

All of the first series from 1978 was up on Youtube a year or so back, but most seem to have been pulled now, which is a great shame as I think it was the best of the 3 series.

This was the sort of TV I really enjoyed when I was a kid.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have reruns of things like this overnight on BBC4.


Liz Upton avatar

It really would – BBC4’s a wonderful thing, and I’d love it if they could fill the hours when, at the moment, they don’t broadcast with this sort of thing.

Ian Andrews avatar

I found the Yougov profiles this afternoon – you can see what a sample of people like in relation to all sorts of things.

Here’s what people who relate to Raspberry Pi like in Entertainment


Favourite celebrities, number 1 – James Burke!


(Ps the favourite pet for Raspberry Pi people is a bird, apparently)

Liz Upton avatar

>What differentiates people who like Raspberry Pi from their comparison set | Sample size: 126

Am I allowed to have serious concerns about methodology here? (There’s the teeny-weeny sample set, and the fact that I would SOONER DIE than spend an evening with Pink Floyd and Jools Holland.)

Michael McDaniel avatar

Hi Liz.

In the 90s a friend and I made a machine to punch (DIN Standard) tapes for Jacquard looms. These looms were used to make Fordrinier screens (used in paper manufacturing). If you would care to have some old documentation about this along with some punched tape, send me an address to which to send it.

Best Regards,

Alpine, TX USA

aremvee avatar

maybe they overwrote the tapes at the same time as the cost saving exercise that saw the doctor who tapes suffering the same fate. don’t hold your breath.

Keith Adley avatar

If you are ever in Braintree in Essex on a Wednesday you can visit the Warner Textile archive http://www.warnertextilearchive.co.uk/visiting-the-archive/

Helen Lynn avatar

Wow – the detail in that shawl! Made me gasp. As you say, phenomenal.

George Witherspoon avatar

There are reports of competing mills trying to steal their rivals punched cards, in an early example of software piracy.

Clive Beale avatar

In those days the Federation Against Card Theft (FACT) employed people to casually leave cards of cool designs lying around in hostelries. These card chains were deliberately missing the last few cards and also contained special cards that printed, “You wouldn’t steal a Peeler’s helmet and go to the toilet in it” on every bolt of cloth. Very popular designs also had pus from a smallpox victim rubbed on them.

Liz Upton avatar

Brass Eye ftw.

Jim Manley avatar

Liz – the Macclesfield Silk Museum content doesn’t seem to be able to make it across The Pond and the additional continent between us, with my browser saying it either timed out or doesn’t exist:


Oh, I just remembered that our dopey school district network firewall and spam/porn/etc., filtering may not let through Vimeo content. We block YouBoob from student and general access computers, but teachers and staff are supposed to be able to get to such sites via wired Ethernet. We need proxy sites for educational content guaranteed to already be squeaky-clean … seems like there should be an app for that … a Pi-based app! :D

Liz Upton avatar

I discovered the other day that South West Trains in the UK block the Raspberry Pi website. I asked them for a rationale that worked with their web policy – they didn’t have one, and I am glad I can use my phone for tethering.

Jim Manley avatar

Oops, forgot to promote, promote, promote! Raspberry Jam this Saturday afternoon, November 15th, at the Computer History Museum (http://www.ComputerHistory.org) in Mountain View, California (just a quick bike ride down the street from the GooglePlex). Visitors can view, among the 2,000-plus other artifacts from the largest computing history collection on the planet, Jaquard punched cards (when blank, they’re punch cards, but once perforated, they’re punched cards) and related artifacts and explanatory media, as well as Serial Number Two of Babbage Difference Engine Design Number Two, which is the only Babbage engine demonstrated daily to the delight of crowds from around the world (its older twin at the Science Museum in London is now only operated on special occasions, reportedly).

Mention my name when I’m there and you get a free, behind-the-scenes tour of R|evolution – the First 2,000 Years of Computing, our astounding assemblage of more geek stuff at which you can shake a stick (or cat, as handy). No, Mooncake doesn’t count as a cat as she is quite human, if not quite completely anatomically correct, but certainly has the passive-aggressive and other human behaviorisms down pat (“You’re not talking to me. No, I’m not asking you, I’m telling you.” :) ).

Liz Upton avatar

Did you fill in the form on the Jams page? http://www.raspberrypi.org/jam/ – hoorah!

Jim Manley avatar

How in the world did I miss _that_? We are listed on the MagPi events page and on Alan O’Donohoe’s Jams listing page, plus are on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and probably MySpace, if it’s still alive!

Anyway, done and we’re good through November 18th, 2034!!! :D

Ben Coburn avatar

Jacquard looms meet “fine art”…

Magnolia Editions – About Tapestries

Magnolia Editions – Tapestries

You will probably fall off your chair when it sinks in that these are all loomed, not printed! :-) Amazing what one can do with a little extra technology nowadays.

Ken MacIver avatar

Queen St Mill Burnley..(Cotton Weaving)
Something for all the family
Great Big Steam engine, still working
Lots of Looms, still working

Ken MacIver avatar

BTW :- The story goes that Monsieur Jacquard invented his mechanism after a childhood sitting on top of the looms lifting the threads by hand to generate the patterns.

Christophe Slychan avatar

If you’re looking for another example of an early punchcard/punchtape device, it’s the Monotype composition caster, invented in 1890s and produced until 1970s. It was used in book printshops before phototypesetting and offset printing came into use; nowadays, mostly artistic book publishers & printers have these casters and necessary equipment (tools, exchangeable wedges, matrix cases etc.).
The machine uses signals punched in a paper tape (“ribbon”) for casting composed lead type, character after character (unlike Linotype, which cast entire slugs). Its reader was very simple: a compressed air passed through perforations and was directed to pistons, which limited the X-Y movement of a matrix case, thus choosing a matrix with a particular position, like G5, to cast a character. After casting, the machine was reset, it read the next combination from the ribbon and cast a character etc. We could say that the ribbon was 32-bit (actually, holes could be found in from zero to five of 31 positions). It was punched on another machine, the Monotype keyboard, which was air-operated and used mechanical elements to determine combinations of holes for each character.
If you’re interested in further reading, visit http://letterpress.ch or http://metaltype.co.uk/library.shtml
There’s also a great article about the Monotype system on Wikipedia.

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