A little history


The worldwide spread of the silk industry.

The art of silk making was born in abut 2,700 BC in China. That country managed to keep the secret of the techniques of its production for 2,000 years in order to maintain a commercial monopoly for the silk merchants who travelled along the Silk Road to Europe. However, the industry migrated progressively first to Korea, then to Tibet in about 400 BC and finally to Japan and India.

It was not until the 6th industry that the secrets of silk production reached the shores of the Mediterranean. It then spread progressively throughout the Mediterranean basin, as did Islam.


Development of the silk industry in France
In France the weaving of silk occurred before the rearing of silkworms. Such weaving of imported silk thread was first recorded in the 11th century.

The first chestnut trees in France were planted in Provence in 1266, following the expedition of Charles d’Anjou to Naples. At about the same time, in the Pyrenees, chestnut trees were introduced by the Moors vias Spain.

Both silkworm breeding and silk production seem to have started in the Cévennes at the end of the 13th century. A legal document in 1296 cited the existence of a certain Raymond de Gaussargues d’Anduze as a ‘trahandier’, that is to say a silk thread worker. The development of the industry would be somewhat irregular, a function of political changes (wars, revolution, the whims of current Kings), and also the level of financial support from the State. Charles VIII d’Anjou had already helped the factories in Lyons and Tours.

However, it was under Henry VI, when the importation of silk had severely damaged the royal budget, that it was decided to impose on the countryside the cultivation of chestnuts and to support it financially. This policy of support continued under Louis XIV with Colbert – interest-free mortgages, grants, privileges, free water use for silk mills and factories, bonuses for each foot of chestnut for three years and so on.

However, the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes dealt a near-fatal blow to the silk industry, with Protestant families, who were large-scale silk producers, fleeing abroad.

French production reached its peak in 1853 with 26,000 tons of cocoons. In 1855, with 5,000 tons of raw silk, production surpassed that of the Royal Lombards and the Venetians combined.

More than 2,300 communes were involved with sericulture, employing between 300,000 and 350,000 people.

These levels of success would never be reached again, because soon afterwards a virulent epidemic progressively wrecked silkworm breeding, dropping production right down to 7,500 tons in 1856.

In 1865 Louis Pasteur was sent to the Cévennes by the Ministry of Agriculture. Within four years he had succeeded in creating a system for selecting out infected eggs.

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 both held back activity. In 1892 a good proportion of the weight of harvested cocoons had been recovered, but was still not sufficient.

The final blow was delivered by the appearance of the first synthetic fibres -nylon in 1938.


Development of the sericulture in the Cévennes

In 1852, more than 60 French departments were producing cocoons but more than half of it came from the Cévennes. The reasons are numerous: - good weather conditions for the mulberry tree, - the region, very poor and without intensive farming gives the opportunity to get all the help needed during the 30 to 35-day period necessary for the silkworm rearing, - having the possibility to exercise the activity within the family unit, significant investments are not necessary and allow families to earn money.

The region is also going to take advantage of two resourceful persons, Olivier de Serres and François Traucat. Olivier de Serres (1539-1619) was from a protestant family of Ardèche. « La cueillette de la soye par la nourriture des vers qui la font » in his treaty of agronomy, «Le Théâtre d’agriculture et mesnage des champs » caught King Henri IV attention.

François Traucat, a gardener from Nîmes, encouraged the planting of four million mulberry trees in Provence and Languedoc between 1554 and 1606.

However, this is the chestnut trees and olive trees frost in 1709 which is going to originate an outbreak in the planting of mulberry trees, this tree having a fast growth in contrary of the previous two. In 1752, the granting of a 24 sols bonus for each mulberry tree planted is going to reinforce this trend. In 1809, the Prefect of the Gard counted 1.140.680 mulberry trees and 4.713.000 in 1831.

« De contrée déshéritée et ingrate, voilà les Cévennes devenues terre de prospérité par la magie d’un arbre » («From an underprivileged and ungrateful country, the Cévennes became a land of prosperity through the magic of a tree») – Clavairolle ; furthermore, the development of the silk industry dragged along the development of secondary operations around the silk and was going to give work to many inhabitants.

However, as elsewhere, successive crises reached the Cévennes. Having no real substitute activity, it resisted better than the other regions. The Cévennes ensured 86% of the national sericultural production in 1938 compared to 51% thirty years earlier. Yet, the activity kept on decreasing and the last mill stopped its activity in 1965 in Saint Jean du Gard. In 1968, the State stopped its aid, which provoked the death of the French silk industry.

In 1977, a revival of the silk industry was attempted in the Cévennes with the creation of the A.D.S Cévennes (Association pour le Développement de la Sériciculture en Cévennes – Association for the development of the silk industry in the Cévennes).

In 1978, the A.D.S. Cévennes launched its first sericultural campaign for the cocoon production, in an interdepartmental level. Thirty-six educators from Hérault, Gard, Lozère, Drôme and Ardèche produced a ton and a half cocoons that year.

The raw silk produced in the Cévennes being too expensive in front of the silk imported from China, the region created its own consumption structure in 1980 ( the S.I.C.A. – Société d’Intérêt Collectif Agricole Soie-Cévennes) : it transformed and commercialized the local production, controlling the totality of the silk chain, from the mulberry tree to the cloth. Yet, its activity remains low in front of the Asian giants / juggernauts.