Bombyx Mori – suite et fin!

Well now, spring will finally be with us soon (or so the calendar assures us), so let’s get this silk thing wrapped up!

Where we left the saga everything was going great guns, so obviously disaster was lurking around the corner – and so it proved. A busy, productive and largely successful period for the rural Ardèche was about to come to and end as three pillars of the agricultural economy were successively hit by disease. The first to succumb was sericulture, with annual production plummeting from around 3.5 million kilos of cocoons in 1850 to just 550,000 seven years later. The culprit was la pébrine or ‘pepper disease’, a parasitic infection which, once acquired, is passed on from female moths to their eggs and kills all the larvae hatched from those eggs. The boom years had led to conditions of severe overcrowding and insufficient hygiene in the magnanneries which had in turn been exacerbated by a succession of mild winters and damp summers. In previous cases of illness the farmers had been able to solve the problem by buying in new stock from abroad, but here nothing seemed to work, and no one knew why. After a year of scientific study, Louis Pasteur discovered a method of selecting only healthy moths for reproduction, but his findings were fiercely contested, both by silk producers, whose amour propre was offended by the pronouncements of a mere scientist and the foreign suppliers, who had a lot to lose. The epidemic lasted around ten years before it was finally brought under control, using Pasteur’s methods, but artisanal silk production in the Vivarais never recovered. During the crisis the Lyonnais silk merchants had resorted to importing cocoons and raw silk from Italy at very competitive prices. For the peasants, their market had been lost and so the whole era of a lucrative cash economy came to an end, causing severe hardship in the smallholdings.

Almost simultaneously, the farmers had to contend with serious problems in their vineyards. From the 1860’s on, new fungal infections had appeared. First came le mildiou, le black rot and l’oidium, whose names reflect the fact that these diseases originated with imported American vine varieties. Then in 1870 the terrible phylloxera plague started to spread up the Rhône valley and by 1882 three quarters of all the vines in the Ardèche had been wiped out. These were small vineyards, laboriously crafted on steep terraced hillsides in stony, unfertile soil. It was impossible to cultivate any other crop on such unforgiving land and, as another source of income dried up, farms were abandoned and large numbers of people left to find a livelihood elsewhere. Some may have emigrated to North Africa, Lyon or Paris, others found employment in the local towns, on construction projects like our local narrow gauge railway, or in the reeling and weaving mills in the valleys.

As this depopulation was happening a third sickness was insidiously attacking the sweet chestnut plantations. The chestnut tree is so emblematic of life in the Ardèche that it is called l’arbre à pain. Chestnut flour was used to make bread and nourishing winter soup but the tree also accompanied the peasant in every stage of his life. It is said that an ardéchois is born in a house with chestnut roof beams, sleeps in a chestnut cradle as a baby, eats off a chestnut table, works with tools made of chestnut wood and finally is buried in a chestnut coffin.

Had the countryside been buzzing with an active workforce someone would undoubtedly have noticed the sinister black liquid weeping from the base of the chestnut trees. But in 1875 labour was scarce and the plantations were no longer as immaculately maintainted, so the maladie de l’encre was able to take hold and spread. Slowly but surely the magnificent trees withered and died in the grip of yet another fungal organism against which they had no defences.

This looks like the end of the story, and in one way it is. Only the gnarled old mullberry trees growing around the farms are left as witnesses to the adventure of artisanal silk production.

But the industry itself was not done for. In Lamastre there were three factories: Reyne, founded in 1880 along the Doux, reeled locally produced silk, and dispatched it to Lyon to be woven into textiles, and St Etienne for ribbons.

La Varenne, another mill, located below the hospital on the Sumène, survived independently into the 1920’s when it was absorbed into a larger enterprise with its headquarters in Meaux near Paris.  It prospered for many more years, employing 30-40 workers engaged in the production of stockings, socks and underwear.

La Vivaraise in the centre of town produced luxury silk stockings, notably for Dior, and employed up to 180 people.

I remember we found a few packets for sale at a brocante years ago and I wish now that we had bought them. The factory closed in 1968 and was later acquired by André Trigano, founder of the Club Med and adapted for the manufacture of tents, awnings and camping equipment.

Because the survival of this fragile textile industry now depended on its ability to adapt to new synthetic fibres* which require more sophisticated and complex machinery, and although there is no more industrial silk production, several companies do survive, some of them specialising at the very cutting edge of modern textiles. Trigano’s very successful main factory, which builds camping cars and caravans is now located in Tournon, whilst the recently extended Lamastre facility, producing all their mattresses, curtains and cushions, has an in-house training department and employs a workforce of 75.

The most striking example of this adaptability must be Chomarat, located in the little town of le Cheylard with further production sites in two tiny mountain villages and facilities worldwide in Tunisia, China and North America. Founded in 1898, the Group has remained faithful to its Ardèche origins, whilst becoming a world leader in composite and industrial textiles as diverse as textile coatings for car interiors, luxury luggage and protective clothing, waterproof membranes used in road construction and the textile element in composites for boats, snowboards and other sports equipment.  So there we are – not just a rural backwater, but an economy which is constantly evolving and adapting to new challenges and opportunities.  Vive l’Ardèche!

* I got very interested in the invention of the earliest synthetic fibres whilst researching for this article. You may not be so fascinated, but here’s a post script of what I found!

The first artificial silk was discovered accidentally by Louis-Marie Hilaire Bernigaud de Grange, Comte de Chardonnet – what were his parents thinking when he was baptised! – who, in the late 1870’s was working with Louis Pasteur on a remedy to the pébrine epidemic. Failure to clean up a spill in the darkroom resulted in Chardonnet’s discovery of nitrocellulose as a potential replacement for real silk. He called his new invention soie de Chardonnet and displayed it to great acclaim at the Paris Exhibition of 1889. However, it was extremely inflammable and was subsequently replaced with other, more stable materials. The name which was finally chosen for the first artificial silk was Rayon, apparently because of the way in which it reflected the sun’s rays.

The next synthetic fibre to appear on the scene was Nylon, which was developed by Du Pont in the United States in the late 1930s and used as a replacement for Japanese silk during World War II. The Du Pont company was founded in 1802 by Éleuthère Irénée du Pont, (another snappy name!) who had left France for the United States after falling foul of the Revolutionaries. The company first produced gunpowder, then cellulose based paints, synthetic ammonia and other chemicals. In the 1930’s Du Pont began experimenting with the development of cellulose based fibres with the aim of creating a cheaper and superior replacement for silk stockings.

Nylon was first displayed at the New York World’s Fair of 1939 with great fanfare and huge promotion, designed to increase demand for the glamorous and affordable stockings before they were available on the general market. Nylon stockings were promoted as “strong as steel, as fine as the spider’s web” and on October 24th 1939, when the first 4,000 pairs went on sale in Delaware, they sold out in three hours. The following year 64 million pairs were sold and “nylons” quickly became an essential fashion item. However in 1942 domestic production was halted and redirected to military uses, primarily for the manufacture of parachutes and tents.

Throughout America and war-torn Europe, women went to extraordinary lengths to acquire or imitate nylon stockings which were suddenly unobtainable. Nylons became a black market staple and those who could not get their hands on a pair used make-up to create the illusion of hosiery.

No more ladders! 3d a leg, all shades. UK 1941 Daily Telegraph (?)

I remember my mother telling me that as pancake make-up was also unobtainable she had tried custard powder because of its attractive blush pink colour, but that there were disastrous consequences if it came on to rain!

Drawing the seam line with a device made from a screwdriver handle, a bicycle clip and an eyebrow pencil! 1942 (Bettmann/Corbis)

In the US women longed for Peace and Nylons, and Fats Waller wrote the song “When the Nylons Bloom Again”, which is almost a humorous hommage to “There’ll be Blue Birds Over the White Cliffs of Dover”.

At the end of the war, Du Pont announced that production would resume and newspaper headlines cheered “Peace, It’s Here! Nylons on Sale!” and “Nylons by Christmas”. However production delays led to a shortage in supply and thousands of frustrated women queuing for the chance to buy a pair, resulted in the so-called nylon riots in many major cities.

10,000 women queuing for the first post war sale of nylons. San Francisco 1946. (DuPont archives)

Any readers old enough to remember the torture of the suspender belt (which to my mind is the very opposite of a sexy garment!) may also recall the liberation that came with the invention of tights as the only viable hosiery to wear with a mini skirt. I personally instantly adopted both, to the extreme displeasure of the straight-laced Senior Mistress at my school!

Freedom!

Sources: DuPont Archives, Telegraph.co.uk, Bettmann/Corbis, JM Bouchon

4 thoughts on “Bombyx Mori – suite et fin!

  1. You really do write the most fascinating, deeply researched and beautifully written posts. I wonder whether they are read in France, or perhaps translated.

    1. That’s very kind – coming from someone who writes such seriously researched and argued articles! We do have quite a few French readers, who say they enjoy practising their English comprehension.

  2. Lesley here. For the first time ever, I got a notification of this entry; I have no idea why or how! But great to read the rest of the silk story. How encouraging to read about the spin-offs (!) from the original silk industry to producing modern synthetic textiles.

    1. Thanks Lesley , I’m glad that our computers have finally agreed to talk to each other! And I was able to take a look at your ALFI site and blog, which is just great. It’s really inspiring to see how much you have achieved and the commitment of everyone involved. I hope the new plum tree thrives!

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