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Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The art of silk weaving captured in fiction. LYON

Croix-Rousse and River Saone, Lyon
We are really pleased that author Helena Fairfax has agreed to give share a bit about the background of her great novel and tell us something about the history of the silk industry of Lyon, France.

Helena was born in Uganda and came to England as a child.  She’s grown used to the cold now and that’s just as well, because nowadays she lives in an old Victorian mill town in Yorkshire, right next door to windswept Brontë country.  She has an affectionate, if half-crazed, rescue dog and together they tramp the moors every day—one of them wishing she were Emily Brontë, the other vainly chasing pheasants.   When she’s not out on the moors you’ll find Helena either creating romantic heroes and heroines of her own or else with her nose firmly buried in a book, enjoying someone else’s stories.  Her patient husband and her brilliant children support her in her daydreams and are the loves of her life.
The Silk Romance by Helena Fairfax

I wanted to try and bring the silk industry to life in my novel, in the same way that some small family firms in Lyon still flourish today. My hero, Jean-Luc Olivier, is a retired racing-driver who rescues a silk mill and turns it into a thriving concern.

A visit to Lyon’s old quarter – le vieux Lyon – reveals the most extensive Renaissance architecture in France.  The wealth needed to create these beautiful buildings was derived from the silk industry, which began to flourish in Lyon in the fifteenth century.
Prior to starting their own production, the French imported all their silks from places such as Asia and Italy.  As you can imagine, this was incredibly expensive, and so Louis XI decided to establish production in Lyon, in order to avoid paying the exorbitant costs of importing. Later, in the sixteenth century, François I allowed Lyon to control the monopoly of the silk production in France – and so the City of Silk was born.
The Croix-Rousse quarter of Lyon is the district where the silk-workers - les canuts – used to live and work.  This area is set on a hill, with a sweeping panorama of the city.  Today the Croix-Rousse is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and la colline qui travaille (the hill that works) no longer throbs with the sound of the looms, but it remains an absolutely fascinating place to visit.
The area still retains an old world charm, with its high stone buildings providing much needed shade in the heat of the summer.  And if you stroll round the area, you will be able to explore the traboules, a network of shadowy covered alleyways which criss-cross the city.  The traboules enabled the weavers to carry their silk protected from the rain.  It is said these hidden alleyways were also used as escape routes for the French Resistance during the second world war. The tourist office distributes a free map of the traboules of old Lyon, most of which are open to the public.  You can also now download a traboule app for your iPhone.
In the centre of the Croix-Rousse district there is a monument to Joseph-Marie Jacquard, a citizen of Lyon who developed a method of producing patterned fabrics using perforated cards. Jacquard’s invention caused a massive leap forward in weaving techniques – a sort of early computerised production – and spread rapidly throughout Europe and through other textile industries, including the woollen industry in West Yorkshire, where I live.  (In fact perforated cards were used up until very recently in the mill in Bradford where I used to work. It was only towards the end of the twentieth century that true computerised production, including computer aided design, began to be the norm).
You can see a demonstration of a Jacquard loom in La Maison des Canuts, a small museum in the Croix-Rousse, dedicated to keeping the silk-workers’ history alive.  The museum runs guided tours and has an outlet where you can buy luxurious silk products.
There are few remaining silk-weaving businesses in Lyon.  One of them is Prelle, which supplies a range of glamorous furnishings for theatres, opera houses, stately homes, etc.  Prelle keeps a vast library of historic designs, some of which they recreated for the film Marie Antoinette.

A synopsis of Helena's book to whet your appetite: 
Jean-Luc Olivier is a courageous racing-driver with the world before him.  Sophie Challoner is a penniless student, whose face is unknown beyond her rundown estate in London.  The night they spend together in Paris seems to Sophie like a fairytale—a Cinderella story without the happy ending. She knows she has no part in Jean-Luc’s future.  She made her dying mother a promise to take care of her father and brother in London.   One night of happiness is all Sophie allows herself. She runs away from Jean-Luc and returns to England to keep her promise.

Safely back home with her father and brother, and immersed in her college work, Sophie tries her best to forget their encounter, but she reckons without Jean-Luc.  He is determined to find out why she left him, and intrigued to discover the real Sophie.  He engineers a student placement Sophie can’t refuse, and so, unwillingly, she finds herself back in France, working for Jean-Luc in the silk mill he now owns.

Thrown together for a few short weeks in Lyon, the romantic city of silk, their mutual love begins to grow.  But it seems the fates are conspiring against Sophie’s happiness.  Jean-Luc has secrets of his own.  Then, when disaster strikes at home in London, Sophie is faced with a choicestay in this glamorous world with the man she loves, or return to her family to keep the sacred promise she made her mother.

The Silk Romance is published in e-format and is available here at Tripfiction, from the publishers MuseItUp Publishing, from Amazon and other major e-tailers.  If you read it, and enjoy it, please let her know at, or you can find her on Goodreads. You can also follow Helena on Twitter @HelenaFairfax

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