Places to visit

Industrial revolution & the
North's Textile industry

Big mills closed in the 1960s
Making textiles by machine
The Industrial Revolution comes to France
Rich and poor
First World War
Death of textile mills

Big mills closed in the 1960s
The North used to hum with rattling looms and smoking mill chimneys, meeting a sizeable part of France's demand for cloth, Today the big mills have closed, but 30% of all French textile manufacturing still takes place here.

Textiles, the garment industry, and fashion design are inextricably linked. The North is still a world centre for manufactured lace.

Today there are many new jobs in distributing ready-to-wear clothing, especially in mail-order sales.

Mill pattern book 19th century Fourmies(left) Mill pattern book, with samples of different cloths made: textile makers had to keep up with fashion. (right) In the 19th century, women and children worked alongside men in the textile mills.

Making Textiles by machine
Ecomusee textile machine
1. 18th century water-powered loom for weaving wool cloth - Centre for Local History, Tourcoing
2. Demonstration of 19th cent.cloth weaving machine - Ecomusée of Textiles & Social Life, Fourmies
In the 18th century many cotton and linen mills were opened in the Lille area. Roubaix and Tourcoing just north of Lille specialised in wool. Often borrowing ideas from English inventors and manufacturers, these mills used new machines powered by waterwheels.

The turmoil of the French Revolution in 1789 delayed industrial development - people with money fled the country, and life was too uncertain to invest in building new businesses. When Napoleon became Emperor, he encouraged industry, and his blockade protected the North's textile mills from English competition. They were quick to copy all the new British inventions as soon as spies spread news across the Channel.

The industrial revolution comes to France


After Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo in 1815, more and more steam-powered mills were being built in the North - again, often borrowing English inventions. Cheap coal brought by canal barge from the Nord coal basin. The Lille area became dirty with smoke and pollution. It was like the Manchester of northern France - with equally appalling and unhealthy slums.
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Roue à cabestan

 Sous l'Ancien Régime, le travail de la laine est organisé autour du marchand fabricant. Celui-ci achetait les laines aux Pays-Bas ou en Angleterre, les distribuait à des ouvriers à domicile. Les laines étaient stockées dans le grenier. On les hissait à l'aide d'une roue à cabestan.

Il s'agit sans doute d'un dessin d'architecte proposé pour réaliser des travaux dans cette usine ou peut être d'une gravure qui servait à décorer la salle du conseil d'administration en tant que document de prestige. Actuellement, c'est l'IUT - B qui occupe cette ancienne filature, située rue Ste barbe à Tourcoing. A noter : l'architecture de cette usine est typique des " châteaux de l'industrie ", remarquable à sa tour qui associait la cheminée et l'escalier. Les serres qui se trouvaient au premier plan sont en réalité un système de refroidissement de l'eau (réfrigération).Le toit de cette usine présente également une originalité architecturale : on y voit des ouvriers vraisemblablement en train d'étendre des laines sur une plate-forme alors qu'habituellement les toits de ces usines étaient des toitures en sheds. La gravure est antérieure à la construction de la maison du propriétaire qui fut édifiée en face de la grille d'entrée.

Ce dessin illustre le tissage de la laine, vraisemblablement au cours des années 1920. Les tisserands sont alors responsables de plusieurs machines. Les conditions de travail restent difficiles (chaleur, humidité et bruit).

Tourcoing: spinning wool

Rich and poor
While textile workers lived in slums on poverty wages, mill-owners amassed enormous fortunes and lived in luxury mansions. Socialist ideas became popular amongst workers in the Lille area from the 1890s, but there remained a yawning gap between rich and poor.

Francois Masurel Bros woollen mill 1884 Jean Masurel: millowner, art patron
(left) 1884 - Railways served the huge factory of François Masurel Brothers in Tourcoing
(right) Jean Masurel (1908-1991) used some of his enormous wealth as a patron of modern art - he gave his collection to found Lille's Modern Art Museum in 1997.

La gravure est un témoignage de la construction de l'usine à proximité de la gare des Francs. Le train est utilisé comme moyen de transport des matières premières et pour l'expédition des produits manufacturés. Il est possible que les voies ferrées desservaient directement l'usine à l'intérieur de celle-ci. L'ensemble filature, teinturerie, et retorderie de laines peignées de cet établissement fut édifié en 1884. L'essor de la production est considérable :

1876 (1ère usine rue de Wailly) 45 000 Kg 1900 1 701 000 Kg

1920 2 075 000Kg

1930 3 865 000Kg

1950 5 041 000Kg

A noter : une société de secours mutuels à participation mixte patronale et ouvrière, véritable modèle du genre créée en 1892.

First World War
Lille, Roubaix, Tourcoing and most of the textile towns were occupied by the Germans during the
First World War, when the industry was looted to help the enemy war effort.

In the 1920's production boomed as the mills were rebuilt and re-equipped on modern lines using German war reparations money. But the world slump of the 1930's saw bitter strikes as owners sought to cut wages and worsen conditions.

First World war: textile factory stripped
During the German occupation 1914-18, textile mills were stripped of machinery that was transported to Germany.

Death of textile mills
As in Britain, the Nord's textile mills suffered in the world depression of the 1930s, and boomed in the reconstruction after World War 2. But in the late 'fifties, the relentless flood of cheap imports drove most of them out of business. Just like the textile mills of Lancashire and Yorkshire, they could not stand the competition.
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Lace industry
Lace-making still thrives in the region -
see the separate page for its fascinating history. 

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Places to visit:
Museum of Art & Industry, Roubaix
Museum of Textiles & Social Life, Fourmies - part of the Fourmies/Trelon Ecomusée
Lace Museum in Calais - world's centre for machine-made lace
Lace shops & factory visits in Calais - bargains!
Lace Museum in Caudry - [near Cambrai] luxury lace for top fashion designers
Maison de la Dentelle, Bailleul - museum and school keeping alive the tradition of handmade lace

Related background information
Industrial Revolution in France
Medieval wool trade
Handmade & machine lace
Early canals
Early coalmines

medieval cloth trade

French industrial revolution




A-Z © Copyright 1999 Invicta Media Last updated 18th November 1999