MONOBLET, France — On a clear day in early fall, Clara Hardy lifted a silkworm from the thin white sheet of raw silk that it had been weaving.
“Here you can see the yarn,” the founder of the silk company Sericyne said, pointing to a slender thread that hung from the silkworm’s mouth. After three days, the time it generally takes a silkworm to create a cocoon, that single filament could be almost a mile long.
All around her, about 4,000 silkworms were lying on a variety of 2-D and 3-D molds. Their output was creating — in a technique that Ms. Hardy, 31, declines to detail — items including the silk coating of a candle made with the French perfumer Antoine Lie and the dome of a copper-flecked lamp in the Sericyne collection. (The dome, she said, takes 200 silkworms about seven days to make; it is available through the company’s online boutique for 459 euros, or $545.)
The silkworms’ work is the result of an unorthodox question that Ms. Hardy posed in 2013 to Bernard Mauchamp, a retired entomologist and former researcher at INRA, or the National Institute of Agronomic Research in Paris: Can a silkworm weave a decorative object in place of its habitual cocoon?
Mr. Mauchamp, she said, “found the idea a little crazy.”
But in 2015, the pair patented the technique they had developed and Ms. Hardy established Sericyne, which says it is the only company in the world to produce shaped silk.
Now in its fifth year, the company occupies an open-plan administrative office in central Paris. Its workshop, in contrast, is an 18th-century silkworm nursery 400 miles south, in the bucolic foothills of Cévennes National Park.
Here, the weather is warmer than in the French capital, and the air is free of pesticides — both essential elements for notoriously fragile silkworms to thrive.
Each day from April to November, the high season for silkworms, the 15 local farmers whom Sericyne has trained in sericulture — raising silkworms from birth to silk production — deliver about 40 cardboard boxes to the workshop. Each box contains 50 larvae of the bombyx mori, the domesticated silk moth, so the daily deliveries total around 2,000 worms.
Raising silkworms is a delicate process “because they are very sensitive to disease,” said Laure Girardet, 25, one of Sericyne’s three agricultural engineers. Last year, she trained eight of the silkworm farmers.
Dressed in a knee-length white lab coat, Ms. Girardet moved between the rows of latticed cardboard trays on which the many silkworms writhed. When a worm is ready to spin its silk — signs include lifting its head, turning from gray to yellow and growing translucent — Ms. Girardet takes it to the atelier where the molds are positioned on custom-made stands, lined up in three long rows.
She raised a silkworm to eye level in her palm and ran a finger along its pulsating back. You can see its heart beating, she said.
Ms. Girardet is a qualified agricultural engineer, but, when she arrived at Sericyne in 2018, she had never seen a silkworm and knew nothing about sericulture. “I had to learn everything,” she said.
Sericulture, despite its prominent place in France’s history, is largely forgotten today. So raising silkworms seems “completely new,” she said.
At its zenith, between 1850 and 1855, France produced 25,000 tons of cocoons and 5,000 tons of raw silk. But successive setbacks, including the silkworm disease pébrine and the invention of cheaper synthetic materials, devastated the industry, said Muriel Berthault, director of the Musée de la Soie, or Museum of Silk, in the town of St.-Hippolyte-du-Fort, a meandering 10-minute drive from the workshop.
As a result, silk has not been produced from worm to fabric at one site in France since an attempted revival in the 1980s, Ms. Berthault said. (Sericyne is a different kind of enterprise, producing raw, nonwoven silk rather than traditional bolts of fabric, she said.)
Once a silk production center in France, the Cévennes region still bares traces of its rich history. A number of silk mills, many now in ruins, are still scattered across the landscape. And in the towns, “if you lift your eyes,” Ms. Berthault said, “you can see buildings that were raised” — houses expanded in the first half of the 19th century to accommodate silkworm nurseries.
Mindful of this history, Sericyne’s aim is to “rebuild the silk industry in France,” Ms. Hardy said.
Though inspired by silk’s traditions and past, she said, the company’s intention is to “make something innovative and contemporary out of it.” And the effort appears to be succeeding (although the privately owned company does not release sales figures).
In 2016, the French 3-D printing giant Prodways presented Sericyne at the Vogue Fashion Festival in Paris: Sericyne’s silkworms, it posited, were natural 3-D printers.
To date, these innovative “printers” have created everything from a 13-foot-long wall hanging for the Château de Montcaud, a luxury hotel in Provence, to decorative labels for the Parisian perfumers Guerlain.
The company’s most recent project, released last month, was a silk and gold leaf watch dial for the Parisian watch and jewelry house Poiray.
“We work in different areas,” Ms. Hardy said. “Fashion, decoration, perfume, cosmetics.” She lifted a small ribbon-wrapped glass pot of cocoons for skin exfoliation, Sericyne’s first beauty product. “We are going to think about a future range,” she said. “But not for now.”
The company, which introduced its online boutique in May, has been growing, Ms. Hardy said. But production is hampered by a lack of white mulberry trees, the silkworm’s sole source of food.
Known locally as l’arbre d’or, or the golden tree, both for the prosperity it brought the region and the rich golden color it turns in fall, the white mulberry tree once flourished in the area. But today, they are scarce. Sericyne’s farmers feed their worms with leaves from a small grove of 400 trees that a local man is allowing them to use, and any trees they can find in surrounding fields.
As a result, the company last month began planting 10,000 new trees in the area. Their leaves will be ready to harvest in three years, Ms. Hardy said, and Sericyne will train more farmers.
“There is a lot to rebuild,” she said. “But that’s what’s so exciting.”