Hemp in France

A pretty Breton girl is spinning hemp while sitting on stone steps that probably lead to her house. She is wearing the beautiful Breton regional costume. The dress, possibly made from black satin or velvet, has been embroidered with a flower design and decorated with lace. Her wavy hair is tucked under a small white cap, long ribbons fall gracefully behind her ears. Two men, both dressed in beautiful costumes, stand to her left and right. Are these elegant gentlemen her suitors? Or are they her older brothers who are in the hemp trade? Or perhaps textile merchants who are inspecting the quality of the spun thread?

The card is an engaging testimony to the long history of hemp in France.

Old postcard
This old postcard “Moeurs Et Types Bretons – filant le chanvre” (Breton habits and people – spinning hemp) originates from 1910 and was made in the French region of Morbihan in Brittany. The refined regional costumes of the three people portrayed here, is clear proof of the prosperity of their family. From the sixteenth century onwards, the French peninsula became quite wealthy due to the cultivation, spinning and weaving of hemp. 

Breton hemp textiles
The streams flowing through the Eastern Breton villages Locronan, Josselin, Quintin and Vitré were favourable for the manufacture of hemp textiles. In autumn, after the harvest, hemp stalks measuring two to three metres were ‘steeped’ by laying them in streams for a short while. This is a natural bacterial rotting process. The woody core of the stalk then came away from the fibre of the bark. The damp stalks were subsequently bound together in bundles and dried against a special fence or a truncated willow. The women spun and weaved the hemp into rope, cloth and sails during the winter months.

International fame
The Breton hemp producers attracted important customers with their high quality sails and rope: the Royal French fleet, the British Marine, the Spanish Armada and the American colonies. Even William Shakespeare himself praised the quality of hemp cloth from Locronan in his tragedy “Coriolanus” (1608). Thanks to hemp, money poured into the French region. Accordingly, Brittany acquired not only international fame but also important architectural heritage thanks to the weaving of girls like the one on this card. 

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