Spinning and Weaving

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:

  1. Sorting, classifying the wool by its quality and washing the grease from it.
  2. Dying the wool
  3. Combing it out so that all the strands of wool ran parallel and then spinning it into yarn
  4. Weaving the yarn into cloth
  5. 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.

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L’hôtel d’Assézat – Woad Merchant’s House in Toulouse

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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.

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Madder Plant (Rubia Tinctorum)

For yellow a number of plants were used including sunflowers, saffron and dyer’s rocket or weld.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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’.

 

The Siege of Montsegur

Chateau Montsegur

Chateau  Montsegur – its ruins perch precariously on a ‘pog’ (rock formation) 1200 metres above the eponymous village in southwest France. It looks out across the surrounding countryside for miles around. Even in summer lusty, gusty winds buffet the tumbled walls and sweep through open archways.  In winter, snow and ice make it inhospitable and almost impregnable.

The castle was destroyed by the royalist forces in the thirteenth century in the last major action against the Cathar sect – a group which rejected the corruption of the Catholic Church and many of its rites and rituals.

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It had been the centre of operations for the Cathars – the seat and head of the Cathar church and the last refuge for Cathars fleeing persecution from elsewhere in southern France. Even after other Cathar strongholds were destroyed and their adherents fled, it was the last bastion of resistance in the crusade against the sect.

From the base of the hill the castle looms, grey-black, unapproachable, secure and as you walk up through the thickly wooded mountainside the idea of besieging it seems unthinkable and yet to put an end to Cathar resistance once and for all, the royalist forces, with the blessing of Pope Innocent III, did just that.

In May 1243 ten thousand soldiers gathered at the foot of the steep rocky hillside leading up to the castle. How must they have felt when they squinted up at the dark mass looming above them? Apparently confidant that they could starve out the inhabitants. But they did not count on local knowledge and goodwill. The castle was well provisioned and under cover of darkness local people crept up through little known pathways to add to its supplies.

Several full-on assaults up the steep hillside inevitably failed. The hundred fighting men in the castle easily repulsed these attacks. You can imagine the frustration and fatigue of the soldiers as time after time they were beaten back to base camp only to hear the order to repeat the assault.

It took treachery (some call it) of several Basque mercenaries to find the solution by scaling one of the rocky walls to gain a foothold from where a giant catapult could hurl rocks at the castle. The Barbican breached , a day and night bombardment commenced; a relentless crump and thrump of massive stones; the crack of the castle walls as they shuddered and fell.

Many of the Cathar refugees who lived just outside the shelter of the walls fled into the castle itself; living conditions deteriorated quickly; sickness spread. The Cathar leaders decided to surrender. Conditions for the surrender were negotiated. All could leave who would renounce their faith and a two week truce was declared.  Many of Cathars took the ‘consolatum’ at this time – a ritual intended to purify them and prepare them for the end they knew must come.

Imagine those last days within the broken walls. After the thunderous noise of the stone barrage – silence.  Families and friends came together, comforted each other, fasted and prayed together. They made their choices – to die in the fire for their faith and beliefs or to live, renouncing all they believed and fought for.

In March 1244 around three hundred ragged souls came out from the ruins, of whom about two hundred chose death. The bonfire awaited them. It is said that there was no need for stakes to which to tie them; they walked, hand in hand, men, woman and children, nobles, soldiers, artisans, servants, into the searing flames. Their cries of agony flew up to the heavens as their ashes scattered on the four winds. What faith. What courage.

At the foot of the mountain in the ‘Prat dels Cremats’  (Field of the Burned) is a modern monument to commemorate their deaths. It bears the inscription “Als catars, als martirs del pur amor crestian. 16 de març 1244″ (The Cathars, martyrs of pure christian love. 16 March 1244).

monument on the Field of the Burned