Thursday, 17 September 2015

The silk industry in the Var

Whenever I take a walk along the Ancienne Route de Trans – a quiet, shady road through the hills behind Les Arcs-sur-Argens – I see a high, narrow building with three storeys of arched windows at the top of the Sainte Cecile valley.

The former magnanerie at Les Arcs.
This elegant building has always seemed deserted. I wondered if it was connected with the wine industry, but dismissed that thought – too high, too open. Wine likes darker, cooler places, preferably underground.

The building appeared to be more a type of factory than a house. Large windows are not generally the style for this part of France – smaller windows keep the stone houses cooler in summer and warmer in winter.

It wasn’t until I visited the Musée d’Arts et Traditions Populaires in Draguignan, that the mystery was finally solved. It was once a Magnanerie. Of course!

Women grade the cocoons at the turn of the last century.
Les magnaneries were tall, narrow buildings created specifically for the hatching of silkworm eggs after the revival of France’s silk industry during the 19th century – and particularly during La Belle Epoque.

They were named magnaneries after the ancient Provençal name for silk worms – ‘magnan’.

The grainage – or raising of silkworm eggs – was a specific industry and vital for the management of the silk worms as they grew and produced their cocoons for silken threads.

The eggs of the butterfly, Bombyx Mori, were used for silk production, having been introduced from China to Byzantium in the sixth century and over the ensuing centuries to Greece, Sicily, Spain and France.

The Var farmer would buy the eggs – about 1500 to 1 gram – when the mulberry trees were in bud to time their hatching with the arrival of leaves.

Cocoons which had been attached to the woven broom branches.
The silk worms were kept on racks in the magnaneries while they munched their way through kilograms of mulberry leaves and expanded from 3mm to 8cm. Then they crawled up structures made of broom branches to spin their cocoons.

Before the magnaneries, women would tie the precious silkworm eggs in knots of material, which they wore draped across their bodies – an early form of incubation.

As the industry developed, large magnaneries were built, including the one I regularly walk past at Les Arcs.

Often four storeys high, their many windows allowed free circulation of air over the eggs which enabled the producers to maintain a regular temperature.
Cocoons were weighed to determine the best for egg production.
There was a rigorous selection method for the eggs and the Var region acquired a certain notoriety for its quality and consistency of eggs. The department was represented at both national and international silk exhibitions. Eggs from this region were labelled as from the ‘Montagnes de Haut Var’ – Mountains of the High Var.
In 1840 there were 28 silk spinning mills across the Var – including Les Arcs. The last mill – at Trans-en-Provence – the town at the end of my walk along the Ancienne Route de Trans, closed in 1950.



  1. I love your posts Jan. I always learn something new and interesting!, Thank you.