Silk in the Cévennes

Cultural Heritage
Principal

The Cévennes were the land of silk : for a long time, the spinning of silk yarns was the main economic activity in many Cévennes villages. Silk has been spun there as early as the Middle Ages, but this activity began to really flourish under the reign of Henri IV of France. In the 16th century, the price of the raw silk that was imported mainly from Italy had increased so much that the king encouraged to produce it within the kingdom. And then were planted a lot of white mulberries (Morus alba) : in fact, in the spring, silkworms eat the leaves of these fast growing trees. Silkworm breeding became common.

Evidence of this past activity can still be observed in the architecture of some houses : many inhabitants of the Cévennes raised the buildings in order to dedicate the upper room to silkworm nurseries. This large and dark room has only small openings for ventilation : the mild wamrth is suitable for silkworm breeding. The eggs hatched thanks to human warmth : women carried them under their clothes or people staid in bed to be incubators. Then the worms gro during 5 weeks – a period when they eat a considerable amount of leaves. At the end, they make their thread, and the cocoon scan be harvested.

Under the initiative of Colbert, the sericiculture grew further with the development of many new silk spinning mills. Il fact, Colbert was impressed by the high quality of the silk stockings made in Cévennes and therefore he decided to foster the development of this activity thanks to the despatching of looms.

In the 18th century, the silk production became considerable. The sil kwas sold locally (for instance at the fair at Le Vigan) as well as in the whole France and abroad. So the silk stockings – made in particular at Aulas or Le Vigan – were exported to several european countries and even to the West Indies.

For a long time, sil kwas produced at home, in a small production system. The real silk industry began after 1840, thanks to the emergence of new tools. Women and girls were cheap labour and worked in the silk spinning mills to bring an additional income to their families. The silk industry reached its peak at that period but was on the verge of declining in the second half of the 19th century, because of the occurrence of diseases which kill silkworms and the competition from foreign silks (especially from Asia).

In the 20th century, the invention of artificial silk marks the end of the silk industry in the area.

However, silk has not fully disappeared from the Cévennes : there is still a workshop at Monoblet where silkworms are breeded and silks materials are created with innovative methods.

Mus--e-C--venol-WEB-400x270

This building, located at Le Vigan on the banks of the river L’Arre, was once a silk spinning mill (it is now a museum). The silk industry needed large room and much light: that’s why the spinning mills had large windows.

La soie n’a cependant pas été le seul matériau filé en Cévennes. Ainsi, la filature d’Aulas, édifiée au milieu du XIXe siècle, a servi à travailler le coton, avant de devenir carderie puis teinturerie de nylon. Ayant cessé de fonctionner vers 1975, elle appartient aujourd’hui à la mairie.

Silk was not the only material which was spun in the Cévennes. At Aulas, the spinning mill, built in the middle of the 19th century, was used to spin cotton. The activity stopped around 1975. The building belongs today to the municipality.

On peut encore voir des mûriers sur certains traversiers, souvenir du temps où cet arbre, qui fournissait la nourriture des vers à soie, était considéré comme «l’arbre d’or» des Cévennes…

There are still white mulberries that recall the time when these trees, which gave food to silk worms, were considered as the “golden trees” of the Cévennes.