Autumn is here and the brilliant golden flash of the mullberry trees illuminates the coutryside, contrasting with the orangey hues of vineyards and apricot orchards, the rosy russet of the cherry trees and an occasional vertical yellow stroke of a lombardy poplar.
We have been meaning to write about the mullberries for a while now but, whilst researching the history of silk production in the Ardèche I realised that the subject is too vast for just one post, so here is the first of a series we’ll be writing over the autumn. We hope that you will find them interesting: it seems worth giving this important aspect of our area’s history the attention it deserves.
If you know les Sarziers, you may well have have slept in the Pink Room, with its large window overlooking the courtyard, and you will have noticed a corner cupboard opposite the bed. These two elements are not as mundane as they may at first appear. When we bought the house, this section of the barn was divided off into a rectangular space running the whole width of the building, with two corner fireplaces, without chimneys. We were told that this was the magnanerie – a place to raise silk worms.
For silk worms to survive and thrive a constant temperature of around 23C, fresh air and plenty of light are essential. Traditionally Ardèche houses are very dark, with tiny windows, so it was necessary to create a large opening to provide light and ventilation and to install the little fireplaces, which were presumably supplied with the hot embers from the main fire in the kitchen. We redesigned the space to make the bedroom, bathroom and larder, where one of the fireplaces is still located. The happy discovery of an old door in a brocante enabled us to turn the other one into a corner cupboard and to complete the transformation of this ….
into this …
Silk worms, or Bombyx mori to give them their official title, are fussy little beasts and will only eat fresh, shredded leaves from the white mullberry tree, which they devour in vast quantities. Gnarled old trees are still to be found close to all the farms. Sometimes grown along the access lane, their roots have gradually forced their way through the dry stone walls, causing them to collapse. Wherever there is a ruined homestead there will be mullberry trees, doggedly surviving where all the other life of the farm has vanished, silent witnesses to a boom and bust which profoundly marked our area.
The Ardèche was always densely populated but conditions for subsistence farming are harsh. The land is often stony, the soil shallow and the gradients steep. Over many centuries, terraces were painstakingly constructed, retained by dry stone walls, to provide fertile patches on which to cultivate potatoes, kale, and cereals. These were small-scale mixed farmers, raising a little livestock: goats, a few cows and a pig or two, poultry and rabbits. They were self sufficient by necessity, but often lacked the means to generate cash for other basics.
But they also grew wine and chestnuts, which could be sold commercially if the harvest was good, to provide a minimum cash income for the family. Wherever possible, farmers planted a little vineyard and made their own wine and any surplus could be sold to villagers at higher altitudes where vines wouldn’t prosper. Sweet chestnuts could be easily cultivated. They were an essential part of the diet and also used as fodder, with any excess being sold to generate cash.
But the real cash earner was the silk worm and artisan raw silk was being produced in the Ardèche by the 1700’s. Although the demands of our little friends bombyx kept the whole family occupied round the clock for a period of four or five weeks in May, other farm work was relatively light at that time and no other crop could be grown and harvested so quickly.
To get an idea of the complex and time consuming process of rearing silk worms it is worth taking a quick look at their life cycle. After the incubated eggs have hatched, the silk worm eats voraciously for 30 days or so, passing through five growth stages and shedding its skin four times. It will then begin to pupate, by spinning a cocoon, inside which it gradually metamorphoses into a silk moth …. or at least that is what it hopes to do! But before the transformation is complete, the pupa is killed and the silk filaments unwound. If the moth had been allowed to break through the cocoon and emerge the filaments would have been snapped into short pieces, so unfortunately thousands of creatures had to be slaughtered to make that beautiful silk scarf you love!
The process began in chilly mid April when the mullberry trees were beginning to come into leaf. Silk moth eggs require a constant temperature of around 23 C to incubate and they were traditionally kept, either close to the bread oven which was part of every little hamlet, or placed in cloth bags which the women wore under their clothes. After about a fortnight, the eggs were laid out on slatted wooden trays, covered with a loosely woven cloth which was spread with finely sliced mullberry leaves. The emerging silk worms passed up through the cloth and started to feed on the leaves.
The next few weeks saw constant and hectic activity. The worms have to develop at the same rate, so the last hatchings need to be moved closest to the source of heat and light. They also must be spaced out so that each has access to the right quantity of food. Hygiene is crucial, and after each moult the soiled bed of leaf litter must to be carefully removed and destroyed. Silk worms require regular meals, served four times a day (so French!) and the quantities are enormous: according to Wikipedia 30 grammes of eggs will, as worms, consume 1,300kg of leaves over a period of around 32 days.
When the worms were ready to pupate, little cages of heather twigs were prepared into which they climbed to begin their transmogrification – and to seal their fate. Silk worms secrete a gummy substance from the salivary glands, working in a figure of eight movement until their body is entirely wrapped, and the filaments harden in contact with the air.
Now for the sad bit! A large cauldron of boiling water was set up over an open fire in the courtyard into which the cocoons were dropped in batches. As the gluey substance began to soften the filaments were unwound, combining the threads from around ten cocoons together into a single strand and taking up a new cocoon as necessary, so as to produce a continuous thread, which was wound into a skein weighing around 120 grammes. This is raw silk, or soie grège in French, from the word grès, meaning the gluey substance. The hanks are called flottes, which nicely evokes the airy, brilliant texture and look of natural untreated silk.
For the hard-pressed farmers of the Ardèche this almost magical process must have seemed a little like Rumpelstiltskin in the fairytale, who could spin straw into gold. The very definition of a cash crop, their flottes, produced in the simplest of conditions, were destined to be woven into the rich brocades and jacquard frabrics for which Lyon was so famous, and to clothe royalty and the opulent bourgeoisie.
But, between those two extremes lay one further step ….
More next time.
raw silk photo credit: attache trading FZE
landscape photos October 2017: Markus