Leonardo and the art of weaving

Or rather, the brilliant projects by Leonardo da Vinci anticipated the Industrial Revolution for two centuries

Leonardo da Vinci, Codice Atlantico, f. 30 vMuseo Leonardiano di Vinci

Why the art of weaving?

“This is second after the printing of letters, and it is no less useful and no less put into practice by men, and it is of greater gain, and a more beautiful and subtle invention.”As in many of his other projects, Leonardo attempted to find solutions for automating some of the phases of the manufacturing cycle, not only to lighten and quicken the human workload, but also to increase production in one of the most demanding and at the same time profitable activities of the Renaissance.

Spinning wheel machine with winged spindle Spinning wheel machine with winged spindle -detailMuseo Leonardiano di Vinci

The complicated production cycle of fabrics

In the Renaissance, in Florence and in many other Italian cities, the wool and silk cloth production sector had achieved great development, despite the fact that the technologies, tools and procedures applied to it had remained almost unchanged since antiquity. The first operation necessary for the creation of fabrics, except those in silk, was spinning, or rather the creation of the thread starting from the raw fibers. Once untangled, the spinner proceeded manually to iron, to a first twist and to the winding of the fibers on the spindle, a tool used since the Neolithic to twist and wind the thread. The yarn obtained could be subjected to doubling, or coupled with another yarn and twisted again, to increase its resistance. This procedure was fundamental in particular for the production of silk yarns. The weaving then took place through the more or less complicated interweaving of the warp threads with the weft thread which was passed from one edge of the fabric to the other. Finally, for woolen cloths in particular, further finishing operations were necessary such as dyeing, fulling, i.e. beating the wet fabric until felting and waterproofing, raising it to make it softer and shearing to even out the length of the fibers.

Textile machinery sectionMuseo Leonardiano di Vinci

In the course of his studies, toward the end of the 15th century, Leonardo tackled the problems related to each of the phases of this complicated production, looking for solutions capable of automating and simplifying them.

Leonardo da Vinci, Codice Atlantico, f. 1050 rMuseo Leonardiano di Vinci

"Non ha altra fatica che a torcere il filo" (Leonardo da Vinci, Codice Atlantico, f.1050 r.)

Four spindle spinning machineMuseo Leonardiano di Vinci

Four-spindle continuous spinning machine

Among the solutions for mechanizing the spinning process, Leonardo conceived a multiple-spindle spinning machine, capable of twisting the thread and at the same time wrapping it on the bobbin, a system that anticipated the one introduced in England during the Industrial Revolution.

Four spindle spinning machineMuseo Leonardiano di Vinci

The machine is equipped with a series of mechanisms that transform circular motion into rectilinear alternating motion. The flyer-driven spindle performs a back-and-forth movement that ensures an automatic and uniform distribution of the spun thread on the bobbin, and a rotary motion that ensures that the thread is twisted.

The innovation can be seen in the back-and-forth movement of the spindle, which avoids interruption of the work due to manual passage of the thread from one hook of the flyer to another, allowing the spinners to have both hands free to perform other operations.

Leonardo da Vinci, Codice Atlantico, f. 103 rMuseo Leonardiano di Vinci

Stop device for automatic silk thread doubling mechanism

In his search for solutions to increase productivity in the textile industry, Leonardo designed a thread doubling mechanism equipped with an ingenious device capable of immediately stopping the machine in the event that one of the threads to be doubled were to break during the pairing process, carried out to increase the robustness of the threads.

Arresting device for automatic silk doublersMuseo Leonardiano di Vinci

From the spools at the top, the threads pass through a thread guide, winding onto the spool fixed on a mobile rod at the center, and while the spindle turns, the doubled threads are distributed on the bobbin. If one of these threads breaks, the spool drops backward, and the shaft on which it is mounted, with its end in the form of an L, moves so that it gets stuck in the rods of the lantern cage mechanism, stopping the rotation of the spindle and preventing the device from wrapping with just one single thread on the bobbin.

This concept of a thread-break controlled stopping device, sometimes referred to as a catch thread device, is applied today in many spinning and weaving machines.

Leonardo da Vinci, Codice di Madrid I, f.65 vMuseo Leonardiano di Vinci

Crank-operated thread-twisting machine

This machine was designed by Leonardo to automate the operation of twisting thread. This is the phase coming after the doubling of the thread, where the textile fibers are twisted to give more resistance to the thread.

Thread twisterMuseo Leonardiano di Vinci

The innovative device, probably conceived for work at home, was to function without the spinner’s having to feed the machine by hand, and without accumulation of thread on the bobbin.
The large wheel, driven by the crank, is connected by a belt to a shaft on which the reel of doubled thread is fixed.

When this thread passes through another small wheel, it is twisted and then wraps around the larger bobbin. To provide a uniform distribution of the spun thread, the bobbin also performs a back-and-forth movement owing to an ingenious system for transforming the rotary motion of the principal wheel into alternating motion.

Leonardo da Vinci, Codice Atlantico, f. 985 rMuseo Leonardiano di Vinci

Automatic weaving loom

Among the many solutions proposed by Leonardo for mechanizing the process of weaving, the automatic loom is perhaps one of the most innovative.
By means of a series of mechanisms set into synchronized motion by a driving wheel, two arms alternately grasp the spool carrying the weft thread from one edge to the other of the warp. In this way, strips of fabric of reduced width are obtained.

Automatic weaving roomMuseo Leonardiano di Vinci

Since the spool is gripped and accompanied, the path it can travel is relatively short, so this type of loom is capable of mechanizing the weaving process only for ribbons.

Between the end of the 17th century and the first half of the 18th century, this solution conceived by Leonardo found application in the mechanical looms of the French Jean Baptiste De Gennes and Jacques Vaucanson.

Leonardo da Vinci, Codice Atlantico, f. 0029 rMuseo Leonardiano di Vinci


Leonardo proposed different solutions for automating the process of beating precious metals, or in other words, the work that the gold-beater carried out manually in his workshop to reduce gold and silver down to very thin sheets, which would then be used for producing threads of precious metals, or for gilding frames, or for use in paintings.

Automatic gold beating machine Automatic gold beating machineMuseo Leonardiano di Vinci

One of his most remarkable designs was the mechanical gold-beater. The device was set into operation by turning a driving wheel capable of simultaneously actuating a series of synchronized devices and automated mechanisms, made up of pulleys, toothed wheels, and counterweights. The metal to be processed moved along at the base of the gold-beating machine, where it was beaten by a mallet actuated by a device connected with the upper part of the machine.

Leonardo’s intentions were probably to make use of the gold-beating machine in the production of auroseric threads, obtained by wrapping fine strips of silver or gold around a silk thread.

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