Hand Made In The Ardèche

It’s a hard rock life in the Ardèche, always has been, always will be. 

But whereas now it’s an underpopulated and underappreciated little corner of France, at one time it was the bustling hub of the silk trade.  It was to the Ardèche that silk cocoons, raised in the nearby Cévennes, came to be spun, before being shipped off to Lyon to be woven, and silk kept a lot of people employed.

In vast spinning factories like this one the local populace toiled to transform the silk. 

Here’s where they passed their days, behind this stone wall, far below street level, where the stream turned the wheels that powered the machines. The windows you see here were not for the workers, but rather for the offices and the home of the owners of the mill.   The workers were underground, down a long flight of perilously steep stairs. 

Today a very old man has planted a vegetable garden on what used to be the roof over the now-silent factory, bringing the place back to a sort of life.

Inside the factory, thin strands of silk were spun on these wheels, doubled, and quadrupled into strong thread

that was twisted into 100 gram skeins for shipping.  It was women’s work, mainly, and this factory in Marcols-les-Eaux once employed abut 28 local women.

Actually they weren’t women, they were girls, girls as young as 12 years old.  And each one had a little booklet, stating that she had been examined by a doctor and was fit to work.  A livret de travail des enfants, a book of child labor.

Here we see that Louise Nancy Vergnes, born on August 13, 1896, went to work in the spinning factory on June 20, 1909.  You do the math.  She, and all the girls, worked twelve hours a day, six days a week and slept in unheated dormitories that have now mostly been turned into B&Bs like the pretty one you see above.  We stayed there, and it was  absolutely frigid, in November.  I don’t even want to imagine what it must have been like in January, after working for twelve hours on one’s feet in a similarly unheated mill.  A little girl, working for a living until she married, after which her life probably did not get any easier.

When the factory was shut down in the the 1960’s they left all of the official notices pinned to the bulletin boards, and so we know that, at a time when men were preparing to walk on the moon, the silk workers were only being paid 1 franc 48 centimes per hour, the equivalent of about 20 cents per hour in today’s money. 

A hard rock life for sure, in a place where the name of the street outside the factory is carved in stone, but the names of those who spent their youth there are fading from the paper.  A girl’s life.

Explore posts in the same categories: At Home In France


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4 Comments on “Hand Made In The Ardèche”

  1. charity Says:

    again, so beautifully written, Abra. so moving.

  2. zuleme Says:

    There is a beautiful movie about the silk trade in France. I don’t remember the name but I can find it for you if you like.
    It is amazing the contrast in the 60’s between life in the US and life in parts of Europe. Ireland was poor also.
    My husband grew up in Sweden and remembers driving though France in the 60’s and seeing all the bombed out buildings and the crippled veterans from the wars.

  3. Interesting how such a beautiful place can conceal many lifetimes of misery. Lovely blog.
    I remember visiting my husband’s family in Ireland in the late 70’s. The contrast between the US and Ireland was dramatic. Your photos took me back. Pam

  4. Shaya Says:

    Beautiful, Abra, your words never fail to send a chill through me. You are a poet in words and images.

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