In the valleys of the Olmes Mountains – a range of peaks in the Ariège region of southern France – cloth manufacture was one of the prime industries. The pastures and hillsides favoured sheep farming and so provided the raw material and an abundant supply of water was available for the process of turning it into yarn and cloth.
From the Middle Ages onwards this was very much a cottage industry and the whole family was involved, spinning the wool from their sheep and then, if they did not have their own loom, handing it over to a neighbour who possessed one to weave into cloth.
In the eighteenth century, this industry reached a new level when the weavers in the lower regions of Languedoc decided to give up spinning and weaving in favour of growing vines. Instead, the wool they had used came to the Ariège and Aude regions. There were five main processes used to produce the cloth:
- Sorting, classifying the wool by its quality and washing the grease from it.
- Dying the wool
- Combing it out so that all the strands of wool ran parallel and then spinning it into yarn
- Weaving the yarn into cloth
- Finishing the cloth prior to taking it to the market in Lavelanet.
The colours used to dye the wool were nearly all of vegetable origin.
Woad gave a pretty shade of blue – mid to dark depending on how much dye was used. This gave rise to a whole new industry around the Toulouse area where many a woad merchant made a fortune from the plant. In the latter part of the eighteenth century, it was replaced by indigo.
L’hôtel d’Assézat – Woad Merchant’s House in Toulouse
Woad Plant (Isatis Tinctoria)
The roots of the madder plant produced red and shades of pink and purple together with a non-vegetal dye that came from a little red beetle collected from the green or holm oak. This produced a brilliant scarlet.
Madder Plant (Rubia Tinctorum)
For yellow a number of plants were used including sunflowers, saffron and dyer’s rocket or weld.
Dyer’s Rocket (Reseda Luteola)
Combing the wool was traditionally carried out by hand using slats of wood to which teasels were attached. Towards the end of the eighteenth century machines imported from Belgium and England took over the work. This sounded the death knell for this hand work and, just as with the Luddites in England in the early years of the nineteenth century, the introduction of the combing machines unleashed riots against the machines.
From then, whilst much the cottage industry still existed and work was done by hand, there also developed workshops and later factories where the cloth was produced.
Wool Merchant’s House and Factory, Ste Colombe sur L’Hers
Spinning was very much a family affair, done at home using a distaff and spindle and later the wheel. At this stage of the process the spinner could vary the tension of the yarn leaving it fairly loose for knitting wool and tighter for cloth.
The weavers worked not only for themselves but also for neighbours who had no loom and for masters in Lavelanet. These latter provided the yarn and paid the weavers by metre of cloth or by the piece.
Typically the weavers worked at their looms through winter until early spring. Then work on the land and with their sheep took over. However they needed good light to work by and placed their looms by a window in full daylight. During the long winter nights they worked by the feeble light of an oil lamp, later replaced by a kerosene lamp with a reflector of polished glass. This they placed centrally on the loom, hopefully in a safe place.
The worst aspect for the weavers was the cold. Very often there was no fire or only a very small one in the room. They had to warm themselves through the work that they did. Sometimes it was so cold that the yarn stuck together, frozen. There was a common saying amongst the weavers:
“Les bobines gelaient, je devais les mettre dans ma poche”
(the bobbins froze, I had to put them in my pocket).
When the piece of cloth was finished it was taken usually by mule to Lavelanet to be sold. There still exist some of the ancient pathways that were used.
To become a weaver a boy of seventeen or eighteen years would take an apprenticeship in a village with a master. It was normally an informal agreement. The boy would work with the master for six months, earning nothing, not even his meals. After six months if the master considered him to be competent the boy could then set up on his own. If he was not adjudged competent he could continue to work for the master, on half-pay or look for another metier.
The cloth produced in the region was of different types. The cuir laine – a heavy fabric used for overcoats with high collars such as Napolean’s famous grey coat which was a mix of 90% white and 10% brown. Other versions of this cloth were made in different weights and widths.
Napoléon’s famous greatcoat – Painting by John-Louis-Ernest Meissonier
Le bureil was a fabric of pure wool either beige-brown or grey-blue in colour. Apart from weaving it into cloth, shepherds’ wives used it to knit the Neopolitan bonnet that they wore.
There are different accounts as to how the spinners and weavers of the Pays d’Olmes lived and worked. Some paint a picture of a hard life, working in difficult conditions for very little reward. In poorer households often the whole family lived, worked and slept in just one room.
Others accounts are not so charitable. I have translated the first lines of a song written about the weavers which aims to illustrate their weekly routine:
Weavers are worse than Bishops
Every Monday is a holiday for them
The Tuesday they have a hang-over
And Wednesday they can do nothing
Thursday they look at their work
Friday starts their week
Saturday the cloth is not finished
And yet Sunday, they say, ‘now you must pay us, Master’.