Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Carla at les Sarziers

April 20, 2018

Preparations are well underway for our upcoming concert next week end!

Our friend Carla will be performing her own compositions for piano, and what started out as simply “Carla dans la Grange” has grown into “Carla De Preter and Friends”.  She has arranged some of her pieces as duos for clarinet, violin or with Markus on trumpet and has also composed settings for poems written by our mutual friend Elena, some of which Kate will be singing.

For a taste of Carla’s musical style, click here.

We’re looking forward to a great event, and meanwhile Markus is doing a fine job adjusting the piano.

(By the way Roz, have you noticed the Tee Shirt?)

Advertisements

Bombyx Mori – suite et fin!

April 11, 2018

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

Snow

January 29, 2018

For all our Walksweekers and others who have only seen Les Sarziers in the summer, here’s a tiny video of how it looked a couple of days ago.  (Sorry the music is very quiet!)

 

Bombyx Mori Part 3

January 27, 2018

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.

Une banque de dévidage

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.

 

 

 

A Family Business

January 11, 2018

We heard today that M Chabannes died on Monday at the age of 92.  We knew him and Madame slightly, they were of a previous generation – les anciens as they are affectionately known here – but our lives overlapped perhaps more than he ever realised.

When we first arrived the village had three cafés, (at one time apparently there were twelve!) one of which was much more than a simple watering hole.  Chez Chabannes as it was unofficially known, also operated as a restaurant, hotel, taxi and ambulance service and a petrol station and the large garaging space at the side of the building on the main street housed several full sized coaches, painted in the livery of Les Cars du Vivarais.

The coaching business was begun in 1890, by the splendidly named Antoine-Frédéric Heraud, who is described as a voiturier,  offering transport services of the horse and cart variety.

In 1929 M Heraud acquired his first petrol-driven Berliet autocar.  The war years were challenging and fraught with danger and heroism but he was able to restart his business at the Liberation and in 1947 Marc Chabannes entered his employ as a driver.  In 1962 Marc and his wife Jeanine took over the business which they ran very successfully, expanding their routes and fleet and buying out smaller local companies which had run into difficulties.

An early fleet of school buses. The garage is the last building on the left.

In 1987, the year we bought les Sarziers, M Chabannes retired.  The business continued, managed by his sons who, needing more space to run an expanding operation, had moved their headquarters to nearby St Félicien, where they live.  It so chanced that when we were allocated our brand new telephone number it was, unbenownst to us, the one recently relinquished by the bus company.  For the first few months we would excitedly rush to the phone – who could be calling us? – to hear a plaintive country voice at the other end asking when the next bus was to Bozas or whether the Tuesday market service was still running in spite of the snow.  We were considerably puzzled and, as newcomers, at a loss to answer.  It was when we were stuck behind a bus on one of our interminably winding roads and read our number clearly painted on the back that we grasped what was going on.  We made sure to get hold of a comprehensive timetable, and for quite some time we operated as a reliable information service for les Cars du Vivarais!

The new depot at St Félicien

The family business continued to thrive and prosper and is now into its fourth generation.  In 1990 they branched into the travel business, opening an agency under the name Voyages Chabannes, in St Félicien and in 2004 two more agencies opened, one in Tournon and the other in Valence.  The company has a fleet of 40 vehicles, ranging from luxury international touring coaches to minibuses, the majority of which are manufactured by Iveco 25 miles away in Annonay.  They now operate regular bus lines, school bus and factory staff services and airport transfers together with long distance group coaching holidays.  It’s come a long way from  M Heraud’s horse and cart!

We often use their regular lines to connect with train services in the Rhone Valley, but the service we most enjoyed was the market bus on Tuesdays, which we only discovered about eight years ago.  To get into town we could take the regular 9 am bus which stops at the end of our lane.  For the return, M Chabannes himself would pick up passengers at twelve sharp outside the bank (a fact that you needed to know in advance otherwise you could wait for days at the official bus stop, which he had decreed was impractical, in view of the market throngs).

Of course most of the handful of passengers were regulars and M Chabannes would install them in their appropriate seats in the minibus before packing away the little step he had thoughtfully provided and settling into the driving seat.  He had by now been retired for some 25 years, but he loved providing this useful weekly link between Empurany, Arlebosc and the market in Lamastre.  So much so that, when one autumn we discovered it had disappeared from the official timetable published by the Conseil Regional, and stopped him in the village to ask if it had really been discontinued he replied emphatically  “Bien sûr que non!”  The authorities can publish what they please, he said, but I will still be running my usual service!

M Chabannes in 2011

The ambiance in the market bus could be lively.  He had been at school with many of the elderly ladies and chatted away animatedly with them, although he would brook no nonsense.  Once in Empurany he was accosted by the driver of an enormous lorry who asked directions to an impossibly distant farm.  M Chabannes gave directions, enthusiastically supported by the ladies behind him who exclaimed “oui, oui, OUI” at every juncture until it became too much for him.  Turning round to us all he exclaimed “mais arrêtez de dire oui tout le temps!”  He was a good friend of M Banchet who sold us our house and, when he stopped to drop us on our corner he would climb out, firmly shutting the doors on the ladies, to ask about his friend and generally have a little chat before consenting to carry them further on their way.

There were many funny moments on that bus, such as on the day when M Chabannes had miscalculated the number of likely passengers and turned up with a car, which proved too small to accommodate us all.  Pas de problème, he popped over to the school to borrow one of the mini buses and returned in an instant.  Voilà!  However there was no step, which left one lady (whom our friend christened Mrs-Angry-and-a-Half) muttering, with an air of offended grandeur “If I had known I would have made other arrangements!”

Les Cars du Vivarais are special to us and whenever we spot one we feel a glow of familiarity and friendship.  I remember once travelling on a motorway in Spain with my group of American tourists, when my bus overtook one of M Chabannes’s fleet carrying a party of pensioners from Arlebosc to the Algarve.  Everybody probably thought I’d gone slightly weird as I enthusiastically waved at them all through the windscreen!

On another occasion Markus was escorting a group in Budapest when he noticed a Car du Vivarais parked in the bus park.  The driver was not there, but Markus left a little note under the windscreen wiper saying hello to everybody and sending best wishes for their return to the Ardèche.  Some weeks later M Banchet told us that there had been great excitement upon the discovery of the note and a considerable amount of detection work necessary to determine who had written it.  I think M Chabannes was touched.

I suppose this is what it means to feel part of a community and links to a place even if you are technically an incomer.  So as we bid adieu to M Marc Chabannes we wish his family business every success for the future: a heartening example of continuity, local enterprise and connections.

The garage in Arlebosc at the turn of the century. The early days of public transport.

Many of the photos are from the site of Les Cars du Vivarais

Roots

December 8, 2017


It is now 30 years since we bought Les Sarziers and we definitely feel our roots growing deeper into the Ardèche soil. Let’s not be mistaken: will we never be “des gens d’ici”. For that, your family name, if it doesn’t do double duty as the name of your farm or hamlet and if it has not been inscribed on the village war memorial, must appear on a headstone in the cemetery – a privilege which we luckily don’t yet share with the villagers.

But just now I’m not concerned with those sorts of roots. I mean the roots of our horse chestnut tree, which gives us welcome shade in the summer, sticky buds in the spring (that stick to the soles of your shoes and then leave traces all over the floors) and hundreds of conkers to pick up in the autumn. Since the 1930’s these roots have quietly travelled underground over a distance far greater than the expanse of its branches.

This does not matter until they start finding their way into pipes. How they managed to break into a sealed PVC pipe we do not know, on the other hand we do know about the results.

Of course it all started with a blocked outflow pipe, followed by unpleasant manoeuvres involving buckets in the cellar. The local plumber comes with a high pressure hose and solves the problem – but only temporarily. The pipe blocks again and the specialists come with a bigger and better hose. It blocks again. They return with a camera that must have been designed to explore a dinosaur’s intestines. And there we met the roots – underneath and smack in the centre of our tiled terrace.

“We’ll need to have those up”, the plumber announced with relish (and of course in French, but it sounds just the same). As we could not bear the idea of demolishing our beautiful old tiles we decided to re-route the outflow pipe altogether: a dreary and expensive job but with the bonus of being able to link up the system with last year’s work in the stables.

In a noble spirit of economy I volunteered to dig the trenches through three cellars, leaving the professionals to do impressive things with mechanical diggers and to cut through the walls. This is cellar number three

… and who do I meet there?

The good old roots, at least 30 yards from the trunk, two inches thick and two feet down, turning neatly round the corners and happily spreading far and wide.

After the pedicure we decided to get round to the haircut – a pruning job which we have been putting off for far too long. Last year I attacked the sycamore …

. . .  which was enough of a challenge, so this time we were looking for a specialist.

I chanced to encounter Emmanuelle in the boulangerie when I went to get the bread one morning. She was having a cup of coffee, and joined in with the general chat, even though she lives in the wilds above Empurany and has only been here for a year and a half (see above). She was there to drop of cards advertising the lopping, pruning and tree surgery services which she and her partner Johan offer. Voilà!

They popped round one evening to take a look at the tree and a couple of days later Johan was perched on a rope assessing and sawing with the grace and artistry of an acrobat combined with the expertise of a surgeon.

He told us that he started out as a cordiste in Marseille, but, although the word conjours images of steeplejacks mending church bell-towers or hanging daringly from suspension bridges as they work, he said drily that “there were an awful lot of windows to clean” and that it became boring. So the couple, with their little boy, relocated to the country. Both trained in tree surgery, they have found the perfect solution in a job and surroundings which they love and which provides endless interest and fascination. As Johan said, working on a complex living structure is both challenging and rewarding and the care with which he shaped our tree was impressive.

All in all a genuine case of root and branch reform!
Markus (and Kate, who pulled up roots!)

Bombyx Mori part 2

November 18, 2017

Princess Leizu

So to the history of silk itself.

For centuries two Oriental products exerted a fascination, not to say an obsession in Europe.  Porcelain and silk, because of their rarity, costliness and exoticism were both irresistible to the wealthy and fashionable who all hankered after these emblems of luxury and power.  By the 18thC fortunes were squandered on porcelain collections and the word “china” was used in England as a slang term for extravagance.

The European love affair with silk however extends much further back into history: first the Greeks and then the Romans were importing it from the Far East From the 2ndC BC onwards.  But for centuries in the West the mystery of how silk was produced remained complete, since Imperial Chinese silk workers were forbidden, on pain of death, to travel abroad.   The Romans believed that the thread was spun from the leaves of the “silk tree”, which idea, although fanciful, has echoes of the spaghetti tree April fool, broadcast by the BBC’s Panorama as recently as 1957.

A much older Chinese legend would have it that princess Leizu was sitting in the shade of a mullberry tree when a cocoon dropped into her hot cup of tea and started to unwind … and so began the domestication of our little friend Bombyx Mori and the beginning of  the saga of silk.

In the 6th C AD the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, fed up with the Persian monopoly of the silk trade, sponsored a feat of industrial espionage by sending two monks on a mission to China to steal silk worms.  They managed to hide several eggs and very young larvae in their hollow bamboo walking sticks, together with a supply of leaves, and the secret was out!

Silk vestments, draperies, tapestries and wall hangings – you name it, the rich and powerful all wanted it and when the Pope and his court set up shop in Avignon in the 14thC and stayed for nearly a century the demand for silk in France really took off.  In 1466, King Louis XI decided to develop a national silk industry with a view to reducing France’s trade deficit with the Italian states, which was running at some 500,000 golden écus annually. A royal manufacture and monopoly on silk weaving was established in Lyon, with the raw material imported through Marseille and along the Rhône, and it was not long before the regions along this route began to jump on the passing gravy train and start producing their own silk.  Four million mullberry trees were planted by royal decree in the Gard, Var and Vaucluse, but it was not until 1709, when a terrible winter killed the chestnut and olive tress in the Ardèche and they were replaced with mullberries, that sericulture spread into our area.  Silk production endured for three centuries and for a considerable period the Ardèche was the foremost producer of raw silk in France.

So here we are back at the farm magnaneries and the boiling cauldron in the courtyard.  To be able to weave with silk though, it is not enough just to spin the raw threads together.  The results tend to be uneven and the remaining sericin reacts badly when the silk is exposed to hot water, for example in a dye bath, when the threads are liable to unravel.  The solution is reeling, a process where the raw silk threads are twisted together mechanically.

Different degrees of torsion give different types of thread for use in such diverse fabrics as satin, with its smooth, brilliant surface, grosgrain and reps, which have raised ribs, jacquard and brocade where a design is woven into the material, or supple fabrics such as organdie, chiffon and crêpe.  The abandoned factories which are such a common sight in the innumerable river valleys of our area bear witness to the fact that the Ardèche was always the foremost region for this activity, representing 50% of the entire French total.  There are technical, geographical and demographical reasons for this, but I am afraid they will have to wait for a subsequent post, because I am about to go off on a tangent!

I have inherited  a considerable collection of vintage and historic clothing from my family – here is my mother’s wedding dress for example – and in cataloguing and researching the pieces, I became fascinated by the origins and different types of silk.  Or maybe my interest goes back further – to “The Tailor of Gloucester” to be precise.  I have always loved those opening sentences: “In the time of swords and periwigs and full-skirted coats with flowered lappets – when gentlemen wore ruffles and gold-laced waistoacts of paduasoy and taffeta . . . . he sewed and snippeted, piecing out his satin and pompadour, and lutestring; stuffs had strange names, and were very expensive in the days of the Tailor of Gloucester”  (and I note in passing that Beatrix Potter was as profligate with her use of commas as I tend to be myself!)

Those evocative names indicate that the silk fabrics were imported from Northern Italy and France, specifically from Lyon, which by the 16thC was the undisputed capital of the European silk trade, employing thousands of silk workers: the canuts.  Gradually designs evolved from the original oriental styles in favour of natural and floral motifs and the invention of the Jacquard loom in 1801 made possible the production of ever more beautiful and complex brocades and damasks, like this fabric used in a 19thC ball dress in my collection.

Fabric dyeing techniques helped drive the development of the chemical industry, which was already solidly in place by the mid 1800s and is still an important industry today, and by 1870 the silk industry accounted for 75% of Lyon’s total industrial activity, with about 100,000 looms in operation.

So it’s possibly far fetched, but I like to think that these two dresses might conceivably have been made with fabric which started out as a hank of raw silk, produced in the magnagnerie of an Ardèche farm just like ours.

To end this post, here is my late sister Margaret, wearing the ball dress to a dance in 1976.

 

PS  I have made a complete catalogue of my collection and I am proposing to put it on line, since there are pieces which might be of interest for a conservation project or a heritage collection.  When I have done so I will post a link on this blog.

 

A short history of wheelbarrows . . .

November 13, 2017

In between two episodes of Kate’s silk stories here is a short interlude. The protagonist is this rusty wheelbarrow that has been helping us right from the moment we bought Les Sarziers with all the big jobs.  It has transported cement bags, sand and gravel, stones, tiles and – in the garden – plant prunings, leaves, manure and compost.  And last week, like the autumn before, it helped us storing our fire wood.

Last year’s log pile was starting to diminish as for the last two weeks the evenings have become autumnal and the nights longer and we started up our two wood burning stoves.

Our neighbour Roger’s nephew Dorian brought round a couple of tons last week, cut and split from timber that he had felled in the little wood below our garden, just as Roger used to do before he was reduced to crutches.

As we loaded the first of them into the wheelbarrow, Dorian stopped for a moment and bent over to look at the wheel. “Solid rubber? Haven’t seen one like this before.” I tried to explain – but utterly failed – why this is a special wheelbarrow, which started its life in Paris in 1980.

 

 Well, since you ask …. below is a picture to prove its early glory.

Dorian won’t be interested, but perhaps some of the readers of this blog might be intrigued or even remember. It was our first show with our Theatre/Dance Company Reflux performed in the Théâtre de la Plaine in the winter of 1981. The show was called “Kaleidoscope” and as you can see, the wheelbarrow had a starring role – just don’t ask what the hell we were doing.

Later, for the more challenging building jobs we bought another wheelbarrow – a boring standard type with blow-up tyres.  It is still with us, but has had already several punctures and is NOT orange.  Here are some archive pictures of it in action, and as long as we have the strength to push it it will continue to be with us.

 

 

Leaving our personal memories aside, isn’t the wheelbarrow one of the cleverest inventions of human kind?  I just wish sometimes it had three more wheels and an engine!

Markus

Bombyx Mori

October 23, 2017

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

Ardèche garages

September 6, 2017

In our very hilly area, roads are not straight. They used to be straighter before the invention of the internal combustion engine, but early cars could not cope with the steep gradients which had been negotiated for centuries on foot or with animals. It has struck us that, along with the requirement to re-engineer the roads, when the first cars arrived here they presented an additional challenge – where to keep the motor?

There was often no way to park the car just outside the farm, for lack of a flat surface. The stable floors too were  on a slope (easier to clean out the muck) and were in any case inhabited by the farm animals. So a special garage was needed.

People who had the money, built their garage out of stone, and – as at Les Sarziers – they added an upper floor (in our case for the hens) and made it spacious enough to house other items (in our case, the wine vat). Our garage was built in 1936 and is conveniently located just 20 yards below the main house. The lower level once housed the previous owner’s 2CV (which unfortunately was not included in the sale). Our Walksweeks guests have probably noticed that while they are staying in our house, we decamp to what the locals still call le Garage. We actually live upstairs, which we refer to as the Doghouse (“we’re in the doghouse”: it seemed amusing at the time, and the name has stuck). It was our first restoration project 30 years ago and is a cosy place to stay, especially in the winter, when it is difficult to keep the big house warm and snug.

Over the years, we have noticed that nearly all garages in the Ardèche are separate buildings, erected close to the access road or often just in a little siding off the main road.  Somewhere where the terrain was more or less flat (can’t trust those handbrakes!”) and where it was easy to manoeuvre to join the road. As with the train stations in this area, one did not expect transport to take you to the front of your house. Arlebosc station is nearly two miles from the village, and in other remote areas you might have had to face a three hour uphill walk from La Gare to the Eglise. The novelty of the speed with which a car or a train could transport you over long distances amply made up for these minor inconveniences.

Driving around the hilly roads of the Ardèche you can’t help noticing these shacks, as most of them seem to be in strange places. They are now neglected and what was once a right angle has taken its liberty to lean where the force of gravity is the strongest. Too isolated, they are often abandoned or filled with fire wood or rusty agricultural machinery.

Understandably people are no longer prepared to add 50 yards of unnecessary walking if the car can get them to the front door and therefore in close proximity to the fridge, where most of the shopping will end up.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In contrast, and in terms of ultimate convenience, I remember when visiting Kate’s aunt in Florida, admiring her garage, which had an interior door leading straight into her carpeted dining room. The garage felt just like another room of the house with a floor that was cleaner than a Swiss kitchen.

And there is of course the English model, where the garage is adjacent, or very close to the house, although I have noticed that in most cases they seem to be a refuge for unwanted furniture and cardboard boxes whilst the car is parked outside fending for itself.

So whether you have a garage full of junk, one that is sliding down the hill or none at all, the visual effect is the same: cars are parked as close as possible to the entrance to one’s dwelling – and why not? In the 21st century all cars seem to be pretty weatherproof and our eyes have got used to shiny colourful objects littering the countryside.

But nothing beats a construction like this ….

 

Markus

 

 


%d bloggers like this: