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 When the Edict of Nantes was rescinded in 1685 and persecution of Protestants reached horrific heights, the Huguenots fled, taking many of their skilled workforce with them, and the once flourishing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
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.
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