The numerous derelict factories like this one which are to be found in the narrow side valleys of the Ardèche might lead you to suppose that industrialisation spelled death to the artisanal production of raw silk. In fact the very opposite is true.
Raw silk as we have seen is created by unravelling the cocoon and combining several threads to form a filament. The important difference between silk and other natural fibres in that a filament of raw silk is continuous and theoretically endless, whereas cotton, wool, flax etc. have a defined length, or staple, and must be spun into yarn. Raw silk can be woven into fabric, but it is fragile and has the notable drawback of tending to disintegrate in hot water as the residual sericin gumming the fibres together dissolves. It can therefore not be dyed and is too unstable for most commercial purposes.
The solution is reeling, a process in which the thread is twisted on itself. The sericin is eliminated, and the resulting thread is stronger and has a more regular thickness. For example, to produce organzine, the warp thread used in weaving silk fabric, two threads, each previously twisted at a rate of 600 turns per metre, are twisted together in the opposite direction at 800 turns per metre. This is obviously a precise technical operation requiring purpose-built machinery and a source of power.
The wealthy silk merchants of Lyon, les soyeux, imported raw silk from the Mediterranean along the Rhône, and were quick to realise the potential of the Ardèche as an ideal site for the reeling mills they required to carry out this step between silk production and weaving. In a pretty close parallel to Richard Arkwright, who built his cotton spinning mills in the narrow valleys of Derbyshire which offered plenty of water to power his machines and a remote location, unlikely to be besieged by angry spinners put out of work by mechanisation, so the soyeux took advantage of the abundance of small rivers tumbling out of the mountains, and a biddable rural workforce, unlike the Lyonnais canuts who were notoriously fractious and rebellious.
The mill owners themselves worked hand in glove with the soyeux, adapting their production to the different types of fabric required, but gradually, in a bid to reduce their reliance on imported raw silk and to increase their control of the process, they encouraged the planting of mulberry trees and the establishment of magnanneries in the smaller side valleys and right up into the Vivarais, or northern Ardèche where we are. So in fact it was the existence of the reeling mills which led to the boom in artisan sericulture rather than the reverse.
Later on the factories took over the processing of the cocoons or filature with the farmers simply raising the silk worms and selling the cocoons at market, frequently thousands at a time.
Over a period of two centuries 400 factories were built and 50% of the French silk processing was concentrated in the Ardèche, giving it an industrial identity as defined as mining and heavy industry are to Lorraine.
The mills were generally built parallel to the river and on two or three floors. The machinery was housed on the lowest level, which had a vaulted ceiling, thick stone walls and was heated in the winter, since silk is most easily worked in an atmosphere of 80% humidity and a temperature of around 25C. The upper floors housed the mill owner and his family, with the workers lodged in dormitories. The workforce was overwhelmingly made up of young unmarried girls from farming families, who spent the week at the factory, returning home perhaps on Sundays to visit their parents and to bring back supplies for the meals they cooked in kitchens provided for their use.
The girls began working at an early age and their modest earnings were generally given up to help with the finances of the family farm. They would leave the factory around the age of 25 when they married and went to live on another busy smallholding in the hills. Their lives were undoubtedly hard, and the hours long, but they were docile, and their nimble fingers deftly performed the quick, delicate operations required by the intricate machinery. Thousands of women spent their youth and adolescence in the mills – the only period of their lives when they were away from their home surroundings, (and comparable to the experience of young men, uprooted from their familiar setting to serve in the Army).
Lurid rumours spread, perhaps inevitably, about loose morals and high birth-rates, but there is no conclusive evidence from the records to suggest that for these girls their factory life was anything more than an interlude in an otherwise fairly monotonous existence.
In the simplest form of the reeling process hanks of raw silk were first wound onto bobbins (le dévidage), which were then transferred to the reeling machine where the filaments were wound onto another bobbin, rotating more slowly and perpendicular to the first, thus creating a twist. The reeled silk was fed onto a hank holder ready to be sent on for dyeing and ultimately weaving, so that the finished product superficially resembled the raw material. Reeled silk however has none of the lightness and sheen of raw silk, but is duller and less fluid because of its tight round section.
The complex wooden machinery was constructed by local carpenters and locksmiths. Carpentry has a noble tradition in our area with Lamastre in particular being well known, even today, for its furniture makers. These light and perfectly maintained machines could run on a mere 2 or 3 horsepower, which meant that the mill owners could build factories on relatively tiny water courses. The mills did not always operate full time: the girls might only be required to work when the owner had an order to complete, and in summer, when the water supply diminished to a trickle the factory might be closed down and the girls sent back to their farms.
It sounds like a hard and precarious existence, but not so different in fact from the lot of the average Ardéchois at that time. There had been a population explosion after the Revolution and the countryside was almost at saturation point, as witnessed by the numbers of farms dating from the 19thC and the herculean labour of terracing ever higher and ever steeper up the hillsides.
The cash earnings from sericulture and factory work were a godsend for these families who were living more or less on the bread line. But unfortunately, as the century progressed a series of crushing blows fell on the three pillars of the local agriculture. One by one, the silkworms, chestnut trees and vines fell prey to disease; war was to follow and the steady decline of the rural economy was set inexorably in motion.
That’s a rather gloomy note to end on, but there will be an upturn in the final episode of our silk saga! Until then, here is some silk trivia to be going on with.
- What is denier? A single strand of silk measuring 9 km weighs 1 gramme and is called 1 denier. So denier indicates fibre thickness and also weight in grams – try weighing a pair of 15 denier tights!
- With its compact structure, silk can absorb one third of its own weight in moisture without feeling damp, hence the luxury of silk sheets and nightdresses..
- How long is a piece of string? Who knows, but the average length of the silk filament drawn from one cocoon is 1,200 metres, which would stretch from Westminster Abbey to Trafalgar Square.
- The annual world production of silk represents 70 billion miles of silk filament, a distance well over 300 round trips to the sun.
- Early parachutes were made of silk, which is light but strong enough not to rip under the strain. It takes 65 yards to make a parachute.
- Did you know that several “paradogs” were dropped into Normandy in June 1944, and later over the Rhine in March 1945? This is Salvo on a training drop in 1943.