The Longo Mai Wool Mill In Chantemerle, Serre Chevalier – Reviving Lost Traditions

The arrival of the Longo Maï community

When they took the mill on it was nothing but a large, aban­doned building, where no wool had been spun for sixteen years. The 1920 machinery was cov­ered in cobwebs, the floor lit­tered with rubble and years of exposure to the elements had weakened the structure itself. But the philosophy of this Swiss origin community is to keep old traditions and skills alive while living self suffi­ciently and independently of modern socioeconomic con­ventions. It seems that one only needed rolled-up sleeves, a strong belief and a good deal of patience. The result is plain to see.

Serre Chevalier’s textile industry

The mill is today an up-and-running business and the community has six members. It is run using methods that go back to the 14th century. It was around that time the first mills sprang up in the Guisane Valley but the first textile industry started developing around the 16th century. Little by little mills in the area, including the one in Chante­merle, started working textiles alongside the traditional grain business. Daniel Gilbert, a his­tory teacher in Briançon, tells us: “Until the 19th century, all textile mills preserved their flour mill to see to the needs of the village. You can still see the ancient millstone in Chante­merle.

There were about fifty textile mills in the area in the 19th century, most of which were housed in old flour mills.” These family businesses man­ufactured for local custom. A hat factory was founded in Villeneuve and today hosts the UCPA centre ‘les Chapeaux’, meaning ‘hats’ in French.

The Schappe factories in Briancon were the largest silk mills in the Alps and flourished between 1873 and 1890. They employed 1,200 workers and maïnly supplied the silk mag­nates of Lyon.

The Chantemerle mill

The Chantemer­le mill belonged to the Blan­chard family from the 1880’s onward and was one of the smallest in the valley. The cold winters made it a seasonal activity as the water froze. With World War I the emerg­ing industry of the area wilted as workers were recruited as soldiers. The aftermath of the war witnessed a new era with changing consumer habits and modern textiles like cotton and nylon taking over the market thanks to their comfort and easy care. The mills slowly dis­appeared and the Schappe factories were closed down in 1933. Three Blanchard genera­tions kept the Chantemerle mill open as a complement to their farming until the 60s.

The Longo Maï Mill today

The Longo Maï community have not been idle since their arrival. They restored the workshop as well as living quarters for mem­bers, but they also invested in new machinery, a Merino flock of 450 ewes and a water turbine, which produces 80% of their electricity. Fifteen tons of fine wool are turned into socks, jumpers, blankets etc each year and then sold in their own shop, at markets and by mail order. Ever caring to spread their belief in wool as an outstanding product, the mill organizes a guided tour of their workshop once a week. The visitor will be taken through the three floors of the building and shown the com­plete process of making a jumper or a blanket, from washing the wool to sewing it up. It is a jour­ney into a world that could have been lost forever.

Despite its slightly dated appearance and its simple machinery, this mill is renowned worldwide for its broad know-how and research into wool. It is a testament to an industrialized European craft that continues to fascinate.

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