By Janine Lea Oesi,
Looking for something unusual to do when next visiting the south of France? A two-hundred-year-old silk-worm factory provides some interesting insights.
Last summer I had the good fortune to be invited by two very dear friends to spend some time at their house in the village of Lagorce in the Ardèche region of France. Lagorce is in the southern half of Ardèche and so enjoys a Mediterranean climate and lifestyle.
This proved to be an adventure in itself. There is no direct rail link from Paris and so I took the train to the charming little town of Valence before catching another train to the much larger, but equally lovely, town of Montélimar. From Montélimar one gets a bus which serves a number of villages in the surrounding region. Lagorce is a tiny village and not actually on the bus route so I had to get off at another village, Ruoms, where my friends met me in their car.
Enjoying summer in Ardèche
Over the course of the next few days life settled into a lovely routine of late breakfasts, morning trips to the surrounding villages and some sightseeing before heading home for a long ‘al fresco’ lunch and a siesta until around four o’clock, after which it was time to go out again. It was on one of these late afternoon outings that I made my first acquaintance with a ‘magnanerie’, a large imposing building in the centre of Lagorce which, in times gone by, was given over to the manufacture of silk.
The entire process, from raising the silkworms to spinning the thread, was carried out on the premises by young women who were also housed at the factory. Their lives were far from easy as a list of former regulations on display attests: up at five-thirty in the morning to be at work by six o’clock with a break between eight and nine in which the young ladies were expected to air their bed linen and make their beds; they were only allowed to go to the near-by village or town to buy essentials and had to receive permission beforehand to do so; they were not allowed to go out at night; the doors of their residence were closed at six o’clock in winter, eight in summer and anyone caught going out outside these times could be fired; lights were out in the dormitory at nine o’clock and no talking was permitted after that. And, as if all this wasn’t enough, church on Sunday was also compulsory. I would have liked to know something about their earnings but unfortunately this was not available. One can only imagine that it would have been a pittance.
The silk industry in the south of France flourished from the eighteenth century up until the eve of the Great War in 1914-1918 and was especially prolific in the area of Lubéron. It operated on a cottage industry basis and provided work for young working-class women, as the factory at Lagorce attests.
The silkworm factory today
The only aspect of the silk manufacturing process that exists at the factory today is that relating to the production of the thread. A guided tour takes you through the life cycle of the silkworm, from the egg to the silk-covered cocoon from which the thread is spun. A small museum houses some of the more important implements involved in the process at the time the factory was a going concern. There is also a small shop with some very nice silk items on offer at what seemed to me to be very reasonable prices. The thing that I found most interesting, however, was the insight this visit gave me into the lives of those young women who once toiled daily in the interests of the French silk industry in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The magnanerie at Lagorce in Ardèche is open from April to October. However, daily visiting hours vary and it is best to phone ahead to check on the times for guided tours. Like much of France, it is closed on Mondays. The village itself is very tiny but it does have hotel accommodation, a restaurant and post office.