History of the silk industry in the Touraine Region, France

The best-known type of silk is obtained from the cocoons of the larvae of the mulberry silkworm. The lustrous appearance of silk cloth is due to the triangular prism-like structure of its fibre. It is this structure that allows silk cloth to refract light at different angles, thus producing different colours.

 In 1546 the Venetian Marino de’ Cavalli recorded his impressions of “the manufactories of silken work and tapestry at Tours”. He stated that they “are of the best in France” and revealed that silk from Spain and Italy was sent to Tours and that Venetian workmen were encouraged to come over to teach the Tourangeaux (i.e. the people of Tours) all that they knew of weaving broidery and tissues. Just a year before a Royal Charter had been granted for two, tax-exempt, fairs at Tours in March and in September, at which “silks and cloth of gold and silver, as good and fine as those of any foreign manufacture.,” were always on sale. These fairs stopped in 1616, but were revived again in 1782, taking place each winter and summer along the Quai beside the Loire.

It was in the early 17th Century, as part of his attempts to modernize and develop various industries in France, that Louis XI’s ordered mulberry trees, for the propagation of silk worms, to be planted round Paris, Tours, (see earlier blog on Plessis les Tours) and Orléans. Louis also sponsored silk and brocade production in Lyon, but this experiment failed and the workers and the looms were transported to the Touraine. It is recorded that by the middle of the 17th century, there were 11,000 looms active in the Touraine.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Tours also had a significant Huguenot (Protestant) population, many of whom had been responsible for the building of the city’s significant silk industry. When the Edict of Nantes was rescinded in 1685 and persecution of Protestants reached horrific heights, the Huguenots fled, taking many of their skilled workforce with them, and the once flourishing silk industry of Tours went into serious decline. Out of a total of eighty thousand inhabitants it is said that fifty thousand went; the silk industry was all but destroyed and was “carried across the Channel, to enrich the English at the expense of whole populations of the working French.”Some of the Huguenots also settled in Ireland where their weaving skills saw them establish some of the great Irish linen factories. Amongst their skills the Huguenots had developed and took with them to

Moire effect

England was the technique of producing moire silken fabric. This produces silk with a wavy (watered) appearance and, by 1570, the word had found its way into English as mohair. A further skill possessed by the Huguenots was lustering a process of producing an enhanced appearance of the silk. Huguenots from Tours had been denied the opportunity to weave lustered cloth in France as it was the monopoly of the silk-workers of Lyon. However, once in England there were no such commercial barriers and lustered silk production grew, some say mushroomed, in London’s  Spittalfields district. Refugee Huguenots also resided in other areas of London including; Stepney, Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Cripplegate, Tower Hamlets and Southwalk where, in the main, they carried out their silk-weaving trade. In particular they wove narrow-ware i.e. ribbons, hat bands, garters, fringes etc., which were sold in penny widths or six-penny wide.

Silk prices, Tours 1807: httparchives.cg37.fr

Lyon went on to become the centre of the country’s silk industry and Tours progressively lost its political and economic importance, and, locally, was locally superseded in as a commercial and political centre by Angers and Orléans. By 1810 the population of the city of Tours was less than 20,000 inhabitants.

The silk industry in France continued up until the French Revolution (c.1790) when, not surprisingly, the expensive cloth went out of fashion and was replaced with wool. But by this time there were only 1,000 looms still active in the Touraine.

Sources used:

Old Touraine : the life and history of the famous chateâux of France, Theodore Andrea Cook, Volume 2, 1802.
Wikipedia: Moire fabric
Textile Manufactures in Early Modern England, Eric Kerridge

About Jim McNeill

I am a blogger on 'The Social History of the Touraine region of France (37)' and also 'The Colonial History of Pennsylvania and the life & Family of William Penn'. I am a Director of Fresh Ground Group Ltd.
This entry was posted in 16th Century, 17th Century, 18th Century, French Revolution, Louis XI, Mulberry Plantations, Protestantism + Huguenots, Silk Industry, Wars of Religion and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to History of the silk industry in the Touraine Region, France

  1. James Sullivan says:

    I am researching a family with a provenance in Draguignan, Provence that goes back to the early 16th century, at least. Berard. They intermarried with LaRochelle, Huguenots, the Magnans, sometime after the Revocation of Nantes. Jean Antoine Berard married Anne Marie Magnan in Constantinople early 1700’s. By 1730 both Berards and Magnans removed to Saint-Domingue were they became notable planters. Do you know anything about silk in Draguignan? It is said to be a main product alongside wine and olives.

    • Jim McNeill says:

      Hi James – Thanks for contacting me. Unfortunately the Var Region is out of my area of expertise. However, if, in the course of my research/reading I do come across any information on silk making in the Draguignan then I’ll let you know.
      Those C18th plantations in Haiti must have been hell for the slave workers ~ an interesting line of research. Are you on LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com/)? If so then there are various History Groups you could join who may be able to be of help
      Happy researching.

      • James Sullivan says:

        Dear Jim, Thanks so much for your gracious reply. Yes, plantation slavery was hellish in Saint-Domingue. The Berard family owned Pierre Toussaint who grew up as a house slave, was removed to NYC in 1797 during the slave revolution and went on to become an illustrious character who is on the road to canonization. From what I can gather, the Berards were possibly benign in their treatment of Pierre and he maintained a lifelong attachment to them in any case. Many people are interested in making Saint-Domingue serve their own proclivities, yet the Toussaint storyis sui generis at every turn. Rhanks again. JAS

  2. Pingback: Maillé and Luynes in the Touraine ~ C17th images by Louis Boudan | Social history in the Touraine ~ Central France

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