Jacquard looms: Videos demonstrating early computer programs

Invented in 1801, Jacquard looms are really an add-on to already existent mechanical loom systems, which allowed those looms to create patterns more complex and intricate than anything that had been done before. The difference: Punch cards.

When you weave, the pattern comes from changes in thread position — which threads were exposed on the surface of the cloth and which were not. But prior to the Jacquard loom, there were only so many threads that any weaver could control at one time, so patterns were simple and blocky. Essentially, the Jacquard system vastly increased the pixels available in any weaving pattern, by automatically controlling lots and lots of threads all at once. Punch cards told the machine which threads were in play at any given time.

It's a really cool process, and I wanted to share a couple of videos that give you a good idea of how these looms work and how they changed the textiles industry. You can watch them below. But probably the best example is the image above. It's a picture of Joseph-Marie Jacquard, woven in silk on the loom he invented — a fantastic demonstration of the design power that loom offered. In just a few years, people went from weaving simple stars and knots, to weaving patterns that almost look like they were spit out of a printer.



  1. The Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns, just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves. — Ada Lovelace

    1. Looms are incredible little machines, and handweaving is a very complex mental craft!  

      To be nitpicky about words – tapestry is not the same thing as weaving.  Weaving is a process of making fabric with threads interlocking going over and under one another.  (If you interlock with loops, it’s called knitting or crochet).  Tapestry is a very specific kind of weaving, but it’s not jacquard.  

       And while the pattern for the “printed” tapesty you linked to was printed, notice that it was “sent off to weavers”, it wasn’t just put out of a machine….those giant tapestry machines are likely threaded and tensioned by hand – it’s a slow and very precise process called “dressing the loom”.  Imagine having to get 17,000 threads all in order, one by one, and all the same length and tension.  

      There are really high-end computer driven looms used by artists and designers, you can do some jacquard weaving on these


      I covet one for complex designs, but need $20,000 to fall from the sky.

      And on the topic of geometric calculations, In the Andean Highlands, handweaving patterns are not written down – they are passed from person to person, and the women who have hundreds of motifs and images memorized can rotate, flip, mirror, and change color within one single woven piece….all in their heads.  It’s an incredible skill, almost like painting pixel by pixel (each line and thread is like a dot in the image).   The weavers who design these complex patterns are like little image computers themselves!  What they can process geometrically all without writing it down is a heck of a craft.

  2. There’s no doubt that Jacquard loom provides much of foundation for many computer concepts to follow.  but… until there’s a result which can change the next step (a ‘branching’ operation) then it never seems to be more than a player-piano or sequencer (albeit a sequence which is pre-“programmed”).  i’m sure i could be shouted down, (especially if there was a loom that could alter its linear sequence of cards), but a sequencer with a fixed program, doesn’t seem to be sufficient to have the term ‘computer’ stuck on it… to me.

    1.  yes, “decision structures”, the term i learned, are a minimum requirement. If just reproducing a pattern were enough then we should go back to Gutenberg, or even the ancients who were cuneiform on cylinders to reproduce text.

      1.  Yup. Not only are there no branching structures, there is no “program” per se, as there is no interpretation of said program into machine code/assembler. It’s just straight machine instructions.

        This is covered at length in “Mistaken Ancestry: The Jacquard and the Computer” by Martin Davis and Virginia Davis in Textile: The Journal of Cloth & Culture 3, no. 1 (Spring 2005)

        (that sweet reference comes from a friend who is researching topics of algorithms in textiles).

  3. WTH? I just watched an episode of QI on youtube, where one of the topics / questions was this very subject.

    1. Connections – Episode 4 – “Faith in Numbers”

       The James Burke “Connections” series is available for viewing on YouTube.

  4. I believe there is one at the Smithsonian, something similar at least. Blew my mind when I first saw it. The long chain of punch cards all stitched together to make one long set of instructions for the loom…incredible.

  5. When I was in the north of England back in the early 1980s I saw a simplified machine for making tweed woven fabrics. The weaving pattern was controlled by a series of metal plates, with or without holes in various positions, linked by a pair of metal chains. It wasn’t a Jacquard machine, but obviously worked on a similar principle.

    1. Back then cross border patents were not well respected, so quite likely some enterprising Brit got his hands on a Jacquard at some point and started making the equivalent across the channel.

  6. It is very interesting how Jacquard’s invention of basically limitless storage via sequential punch cards went on inspire Babbage and the his work on the the first mechanical computer systems, and later inspired the census taking punch cards which would later grow into IBM.  I think I mentioned this book to Maggie before, but I recommend it to anyone interested in the topic: Jacquard’s Web

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