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The Rise of Silk Industry in Lyon, France


In ancient France, the high and middle classes of society created a demand for locally designed silk products that embraced their tastes and culture. For a long time, the French elites had been spending a lot of money on acquiring quality silk fabrics imported from other countries. Due to the worry of giving a lot of money to foreign countries for silk-related products, various French merchants sought to introduce this lucrative business in Lyon. By the end of the 15th century, King Louis XI and Francois 1st made an agreement with Italian artisans to set up a silk industry in France (Bonetto, Hofmann, and Prause 8).

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Such efforts aimed at introducing silk manufacturers in Lyon to bring together both French silk merchants and Italian experts. In addition, Bonetto Hofmann and Prause indicate that by the 18th Century, the Lyon Silk Company had been transformed into a state factory in a bid to facilitate its growth (7). This move enabled the company to compete with its predecessor and reach the supremacy of the European silk markets. Consequently, in its evolutionary stages, the Lyon Silk Factory encountered numerous entrepreneurial challenges, particularly lack of investment in innovation. This industry dominated world markets for a long time until the late 1970s when the Industrial Revolution introduced alternative and cheap technology for producing cotton and nylon, which facilitated the subsequent decline of the silk industry in France.

The emergence of the silk industry in Lyon

A number of factors influenced the need to establish a local industry to supply silk fabrics in France. The silk industry in Lyon anchored its roots in the French economy during the 15th Century (Datta and Nanavaty 57). First, silk products were highly recognized as a luxury in various classes of French society. Importing silk products was very expensive, particularly from Italy, which produced most of the highly coveted silk products in Europe.

In addition, avoiding money transfers from France to Italy via imports was a move highly reckoned by French citizens since it saved the taxpayers’ money. Second, the increased export of precious stones from France to Italy in exchange for silk products was seen as a move that threatened to exploit the precious deposits of the French treasures. Third, French locals had started to express the need for affordable designs that recognized local cultures and landscapes through designs. Finally, the need to avoid overreliance on other states and develop a self-reliant state was overbearing.

The Lyon Silk Factory at different stages of initiation received institutional support through tax freedoms for both local and Italian merchants who wanted to introduce silk plants in Lyon. This framework later singled Lyon to import raw materials such as silk threads coupled with conducting extensive research about silk farming. In addition, due to the emerging desire to embrace purely local silk products, the southern part of France started sericulture to supply Lyon with raw materials. The newly established structures in “Lyon gradually succeeded the Italian production of the out-of-favor designs of silk products” (Datta and Nanavaty 37).

The French authorities granted the Lyon Silk Factory tax freedom as an incentive to bolster fast growth to supply the French royals with quality silk products. The factory, with the help of the government, invested in new sophisticated technology that raised the quality and quantity of local production. Such institutionalized and structured support to innovation elevated the silk industry into a highly growing and economically significant production entity. The Lyon sector was not solely beneficial to the city but the entire French society, particularly the southern part, which was actively engaged in the production of raw materials. The Lyon silk fabric production and distribution encompassed almost every section of the French economy and beyond.

Towards a sustainable entrepreneurship

Since its initiation in the 15th Century, the Lyon Silk Factory substantially considered the improvement of technical skills and the recruitment of more artisans. The French kings and nobles during this time developed incentives such as bonuses and pensions to attract both local and foreign expertise to invest in the French silk industry. Embracing technical advancement targeted raising the quality of silk fabrics and minimizing the production cost by employing less, but productive labor.

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Following the introduction of weaving looms in the better part of Europe increased the number of silk-producing centers. Nonetheless, this advancement was positive for the Lyon industry, since it simplified the silk-making process, hence raising productivity. In a bid to match and compete with its predecessor, the Italian silk industry, the Lyon Silk Factory linked with China, which was leading in terms of quality silk fabric production. The Chinese silk expertise granted the Lyon industry the much-needed experience and literature to bolster their knowledge of silk processing. The industrial advancements in cocoon processing, reeling, and weaving facilitated the development of the Lyon silk industry (Bonetto, Hofmann, and Prause 4).

In a bid to sustain its entrepreneurial aspirations, the Lyon industry focused on enhancing efficiency and consistency in the long-term through the incorporation of new technology and expertise in the silk industry. Sustainable growth of the Lyon factory involved a continuous process that embraced social and environmental benefits for customers. In the second half of the 17th century, thousands of workers had joined the Lyon silk industry, which was experiencing huge growth. Later in the 18th and 19th Centuries, Lyon experienced a boost in silk farming or sericulture, which in turn attracted both local and international markets for its diversity in design. The design assumed distinctive styles, which depicted both local and international landscapes. Other production privileges included the monopoly status enjoyed by the Lyon industry (Miller 41).

Innovation management

The innovation management approach involves research, information generation, and the conception of ideas for implementation. Innovation formulates the way forward to establishing external factors to raise firms’ production capability. The adoption of foreign silk knowledge by the Lyon factory was necessary to show the direction for the silk enterprise in France. Following the French and the Chinese exchanges at the end of the 17th Century, France amassed voluminous literature and skills in the silk industry (Schroeder 52).

After a comparative analysis of the Italian, Chinese, and French silk production techniques, the Chinese expertise stood out as the most viable and particularly the so-called hurried breeding process, which enhanced breeding to pass through certain stages within the shortest time possible. Although the Chinese industry carefully guarded sericulture technology, the French industry partly acquired basic skills to manage silk production. In addition, the Chinese models embraced open innovation, which involved a traditional shift from the industrial norms to the network-oriented expertise and communicative production.

Primarily, this approach involved the consumers in the production channel to ensure that the products were in line with their demands. This interactive addition of value served as the impetus upon which the Lyon silk industry developed a competitive edge across the Western silk industry. This aspect made it inevitable for the Lyon industry to adhere to the consumers’ wishes and standards in all levels of silk fabric production.

Silk design in Lyon

The design of the fabric meant a lot to the French consumers as the silk status was superior to other textiles because it represented their culture and lifestyles. Some designs adopted the local landscape, thus increasing the demand for locally designed fabric as opposed to imported designs. The design entrepreneurship stood out as an integral part of the silk industry. The municipal authorities and the French merchants had organized structured training programs for artisans, designers, and management to help in ensuring that the Lyon industry met the demand for silk products. Learned societies encouraged cooperation between scholars and industries, which led to an increase in research on techniques in silk farming. The favorable environments encouraged by plenty of skilled human capital ensured continued to thrive off new designs to sustain the rising demand for silk products (Schroeder 33).

The decline of the Lyon silk industry

The era of success had persisted for quite a long time running from the 15th century to the late 20th Century. It is worth noting that this continued growth and prominence of the Lyon silk industry was boosted by the high investment in innovation and the tax freedom granted to the silk sector. However, following the peak of the Industrial Revolution and the economic challenges of the mid-20th century, cheap alternative products such as cotton, wool, and nylon staged in huge competition, thus making it hard for the silk industry to survive (Miller 41). Huge rivalry from the British and Italian designers raised competition for the shrinking markets for silk products. The British designers swiftly switched to new technology to cope with the emerging market demands and trends in design. This competitive atmosphere suppressed the Lyon Silk Factory, which had failed to match the new dynamics in the silk industry.

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The Lyon silk sector evolved through trends of huge growth, saturation, and later decline due to market factors. In France, the silk industry was introduced from other countries, most notably Italy and China. Across many centuries, the Lyon Silk Factory emerged as an economic power and sustainable entrepreneurial hub for the French community, and it generated income and livelihood for various generations of employees.

The implications of the Lyon silk industry were very crucial to the economy because even after its decline, Lyon stood as one of the world’s leading zones in creative entrepreneurship. Despite its innovative angle and institutionalized support by the Lyon municipalities, with the swift diffusion of the Industrial Revolution, it became hard for the Lyon silk industry to respond to technological demands and match the cheap alternative products of cotton and nylon. Consequently, the impending closure of the Lyon silk industry proved inescapable in the late 20th Century.

Works Cited

Bonetto, Pierre, Bernd Hofmann, and Gunnar Prause. “Rise and fall of the Lyon silk cluster: a case study about entrepreneurial sustainability.” Entrepreneurship and Sustainability Issues 2.1 (2014): 1-11. Print

Datta, Rajat, and Mahesh Nanavaty. Global Silk Industry: A Complete Source Book, Boca Raton: Universal Publishers, 2005. Print.

Miller, Lesley. Selling Silks: A Merchant’s Sample Book 1764, London: V & A Publishing, 2014. Print.

Schoeser, Mary. Silk, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. Print.

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