Lush Velvets and Sumptuous Brocades: The Lisio Foundation, Florence, Italy

by Sheila O’Hara © 11/16/07


I first heard of the Lisio Foundation after a college friend of mine, Pat Kinsella, married an Italian and moved to Prato, Italy in 1985. She became acquainted with the various weaving schools in Florence and has been teaching weaving at Fuji Studio since 1986. She also told me about a school where they taught people how to weave velvet and brocade on old jacquard looms! This school turned out to be the Lisio Foundation originally started as a manufacturing company in the early 1900’s. Many of the looms were sold off and the factory closed but the former schoolhouse for the workers’ children now houses about 8 jacquard looms for the limited hand woven manufacturing & 6 jacquard looms for classes. See one of Lisio’s velvet loom with the rack for the velvet warp threads and lush velvets below.






In 1976, Pat Kinsella and I graduated California College of the Arts, Oakland, CA, majoring in Textiles with an emphasis on weaving. We both learned about jacquard looms in Textile History from Ruth Boyer at CCA. Once we got interested in the jacquard loom we wanted to learn more. We have both made our livings as weavers including a combination of creating artwork, teaching weaving, working for industry, as well as weaving corporate and private commissions using 16 shaft AVL compudobby looms. We were pushing the boundaries of design by using various pick-up techniques to create our imagery, all the while dreaming of jacquard looms.


We had heard about the Jacquard Project at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1980 where artists wove on a punch card hand jacquard loom designed with 4 or 5 repeats across the warp. In 1991 Pat Kinsella took a class at the Lisio Foundation and told me all about it. She wove on a punch card jacquard loom at Lisio after creating the graph paper design and punching and lacing the cards. She told me about the lush velvets and sumptuous brocades in their collection. She spoke about the brocade and velvet weavers currently working on these looms made in the early 1900’s. In this day and age of the computer it seemed hard to imagine that there were people still weaving on looms that only required man or woman power! No electricity is required except for providing light!  I wanted to go see this place some day.




           Lisio Velvet – background in velvet is unusual.                     Detail of Lisio bag with silk and feather brocade.


Also in 1991 Pat Kinsella and I were invited along with Hanns Herpich, Cynthia Schira and Lia Cook to participate in the Muller Zell Jacquard Project in Germany organized by Betrijs Sterk of the German Textile Magazine, Textileforum. Vibeke Vestby participated as a researcher. At Muller Zell, we saw our designs realized on fully computer assisted electronic industrial jacquards loom. There were 6,000 warp threads designed with two repeats across the warp. These fully computerized electronic looms were first introduced about 1980. The fabric came off the looms so fast it was stunning! A meter was woven in about 20 minutes! This was something like 400 picks a minute with 100 ends per inch in the warp and 150 picks per inch in the weft.  On simpler fabrics these looms can weave even faster.


I wondered how this compared to a draw loom and to the hand jacquard loom developed in 1800? According to James Essinger in his book Jacquard’s Web ©2004 pg 38, he wrote: “And how rapidly did it weave? The astonishing truth is that the Jacquard loom enabled decorated fabric to be woven at about twenty four times more quickly than the draw loom. Whereas in the past even the most skilled weaver and draw-boy duo could only manage two rows or picks of woven fabric every minute, a skilled lone weaver using the Jacquard loom could manage to fit in about 48 picks per minute of working time. This was a prodigious gain in speed for the technology of the time.” This is also why the workers were after Jacquard because many lost their jobs! Despite this opposition there were 11,000 jacquard looms in use in France by 1812. By comparison this would make some electronic jacquard looms about 10 times faster than the hand jacquard loom and the loom is weaving by itself once it is set up. We have come full circle – the jacquard loom influenced Charles Babbage and the development of the computer and now the jacquard loom has become computerized. I wonder what Joseph-Marie Jacquard and Charles Babbage would be thinking now?


In the summer of 2006 at Convergence in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I stopped by to say “Hi” to Barbara Setsu Pickett as she taught a velvet workshop. Students were busy weaving velvet and were enthralled with the results they were getting on table looms with fancy bobbin set ups made out of PVC pipe. Barbara displayed samples of velvets that she had woven at Lisio over the years and on her own velvet loom, along with many historical samples. Barbara takes a group of her students from University of Oregon in Eugene, to Lisio every other year for a two week class.  To encourage other teachers to bring their students to Lisio, she was helping organize a Symposium at Lisio to introduce teachers to the facilities and classes. She asked if I wanted to go. Without any hesitation I said, “Yes!” I started saving my pennies for the airfare. I e-mailed Pat Kinsella in Prato and said “Italy – here I come!”


On July 10, 2007, I flew to Florence, Italy, and spent a great week with Pat Kinsella and her husband Roberto Dematteis, swimming, sight seeing and picnicking in Italy. It is so nice to connect with friends I have known for so long. On July 19th, Pat dropped me off at the Lisio Foundation where we ran into Franz Ippoldt. It turns out that Pat and Franz had taken the class together at Lisio in 1991!  He was now my next door neighbor in the apartments on the Lisio Foundation grounds. It was sheer luck that we ran into him and that Pat introduced me. He turned out to be Technical Director of the Lisio Foundation and one of the weavers. He was very friendly to me. He helped me with technical information, showed several of us samples of his own designs and fabrics from his studio in France one evening and also proved to be a great and generous chef! Having him as a neighbor enhanced my experience at Lisio tremendously. I was also glad to have Barbara Setsu Pickett as my roommate. We were lucky she made the trip at all since she had slipped and broken her ankle about a month before the trip. Her sheer determination to do physical therapy enabled her to make the trip crutch and all!




                      View from top of the Duomo, Florence, Italy.                                             Sheila O’Hara & Pat Kinsella, Cecina, Italy.


For 5 days, a group of 20 teachers/weavers/artists exchanged ideas and had a crash course in weave analysis, drafting, jacquard software, brocade and velvet weaving and loom technologies taught by Eva Basile, Lisio School Director, Julie Holyoke, Lisio Special Projects Organizer, and Franz Ippoldt, Technical Director. We sat through short presentations by everyone on their artwork as well as on how weaving and the jacquard loom fit differently into University Programs in Italy, the United States, Canada, Finland, Denmark, England and Taiwan. This was a great exchange of ideas.





              Eva Basile teaching fabric analysis.                               Viewing fabric at great magnification.





       Viewing antique and student fabrics above and below.                 Barbara Setsu Pickett, Eva Basile and Kirsten Nissen




We viewed samples from the Lisio’s extensive collection of fabrics including many antique fabrics as well as several samples from students who have taken classes at Lisio. We saw brocades and velvets being woven on hand operated punch card jacquard looms made in the early 1900’s!




Marta Valdarni has woven this brocade pattern for 35 years. She is holding the brocade fabric that’s woven to look like it’s old.




Newly woven brocade fabric in orange to look old.  Gold version on the loom.            Original worn fabric used for inspiration.




     Franz Ippodlt weaving velvet.  Top of velvet loom showing grey cards for red and black design.  Brown cards not being used.




View of velvet showing the gold rods that are used to create the cut pile and silver rods underneath used for the uncut velvet pile.

The same black silk warp yarn in the velvet creates two colors. The cut pile looks black and the uncut pile looks charcoal.




Franz holding velvet cutter pointing to blade.   Drawing showing side view of ground warps with velvet warp going over the rods.



One of the things that amazed me was finding out more about how the manual jacquard looms operate.

I always thought a jacquard loom just had individual thread controls for each warp thread or hook. What

I didn’t know is that there are many variations on hand jacquard looms. Some have shafts in addition to the hooks. Many have what I believe are called banisters. These are pieces of flat wood that catch the top of each heddle just like the wood on a shaft loom except they are only at the top of the heddle and not at the bottom. There are individual weights on the book of each heddle or hook. I counted up to 16 of these banisters.  This enables the weaver to lift a select group of hooks all at once sort of like a 16 shaft loom. In addition to the hooks and banisters there are often actual shafts on the looms. The shafts and the banisters are controlled by a second set of punch cards that work in conjunction with the first set of punch cards controlling individual hooks. For example, the shafts and banisters can control the ground weave while the hooks control the overall pattern. Then there is the rack for the velvet warp on velvet looms where every velvet warp thread is wound on a separate spool and counterweighted! Setting that up must take days if not weeks. To create designs and draft patterns for these specialized jacquard looms requires an incredible skill of multi-layered thinking. By using shafts and banisters they could make their designs more efficient and effective. It is really mind-boggling. I have a newfound respect for the weavers and designers who worked and still do work on these looms!




Velvet warp rack with a mini spool for every velvet warp thread, each with a counterweight for tension.

This set up is required because the take-up is different on each warp thread when making a patterned design in velvet.




                       Machine for punching jacquard cards.     Machine for lacing together the jacquard cards.




  Shafts behind hooks & banisters.  Cords to lift shafts & banisters go up to the left, cords for hooks go up to the right.

Today, with the use of the computer, we can move every warp thread independently without having to use punch cards so there is no need for shafts and banisters because the computer can make any shed happen at any time. The only reason to get shafts with a jacquard loom today would be that you would pay less for the loom. For example you could use shafts for half your warp threads for the ground weave and then hooks for the other half the warp threads for the pattern threads. This way you would only have to pay for jacquard mechanisms for half the warp and you would save money. Then, however, you are stuck with that threading and can’t just switch between weave structures easily.


In a post conference 5 day workshops, six of us paid to take a class to weave on one of the jacquard looms that had been converted from a punch card jacquard head to an electronic jacquard head with a computer interface. There was also a 2nd 5 day workshop with two more of us. We each brought a design 1272 x 400 pixels with 5 color effects. This would become a weaving 25 by 8”.  The number of picks per inch would vary depending on the weaves. On Day One we each put our designs into the jacquard software Pointcarre with help from Julie Holyoke and Eva Basile. We hastily prepared weaves and files and then each wove two inches. On Day Two we made any changes we thought would improve our design and each wove 2 inches again. We learned about designing properly integrated weave structures so that when structures are mixed within a design there is even take-up on the silk warp. On Days Three, Four and Five - two of us would weave each day for six hours to create our 25” x 8” design!  This was only possible because of the computer interface. The regular class on the hand jacquard looms takes weeks because of the time it takes to prepare the draft on point paper and punch and tie the cards but each person has their own loom. We were sharing one loom so while each of us was weaving, the others could either be working on their designs or viewing more fabrics or doing more weave analysis. It was a very intense and educational 5 days. It was interesting to see the various designs we each created. We were assisted by Helena Loerman, who also wove a piece after we left. It was also fun to share meals together, especially the tasty dinner cooked by Chai Hui.




                                                                      Chai Hui Lu, Taiwan




                 Tuulia Lampinen, Finland




                         Berthe Forchhammer, Denmark





Vita Plume, USA/Canada                                Helena Loerman, Italy, woven after workshops.





                   Pat Williams, USA                                   Ismini Samanidou, Great Britain, woven in 2nd 5 day workshop.




   Sheila O’Hara, USA, from a photo taken at Mendinat Habu Temple, West Bank Luxor, Egypt. Front, detail, & back.


One evening Dušan Peterc from Slovenia dropped by after seeing his clients in Prato. Several of us went to dinner with him in town and had a very nice visit. He then took us back to Lisio and showed us many amazing commercial samples woven by his clients using the jacquard software he has written called ArahWeave. On the last evening we had a wonderful dinner at Julie Holyoke’s home in downtown Florence overlooking the city. We celebrated her birthday with tasty food and drink and were sorry the time had come to an end!  The nice thing is that we all have expanded our circle of weavers, putting faces with names and artworks and places. I am sure many of us will cross paths again in the future.




 Brunch at Lisio - Julie Holyoke, Vita Plume, Pat Williams, Helena Loerman.      Julie Holyoke and Thank You wine.




Eva Basile and Thank You wine.  l. to r. Wen –Ying Huang, Tuulia Lampinen, Chai Hui Lu, Berthe Frochhammer, Pat Williams, Julie Holyoke, Diane Sheehan, Ismini Samanidou, Helena Loerman, front Kirtsen Nissen, Christy Matson.


The Symposium was provided by the great generosity of the Lisio Foundation organized by Eva Basile, Lisio School Director and teacher, Julie Holyoke, Lisio Special Projects Organizer and teacher, and Franz Ippoldt, Technical Director and weaver. We are very thankful to the Foundation for the Symposium that also included many tasty meals over the 5 days! We are also grateful to Barbara Setsu Pickett who got the whole ball of silk rolling because of her passion for velvet and her desire to spread the word about the Lisio Foundation.   I couldn’t put it better than Julie Holyoke who wrote in the Lisio Foundation Publication Jacquard/60, September 2007, page 5: “The meeting of these two worlds, of weaving and contemporary art, has indeed been fruitful for all of us. We invite all those who participated in the conference, as well as others working in the field of art textiles, to join in our pursuit to renew and perpetuate the art of weaving and the weaving of art.”




Sheila O’Hara, Franz Ippoldt & seated Barbara Setsu Pickett (Queen of Velvet).