Posts Tagged ‘Ardèche industry’

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.

 

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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


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