RESEARCHED AND WRITTEN BY SUE MACDONALD AND ELAINE FRAZER-ROBINSON
Wait for the Full Moon
On the night of the Winter full moon its time to begin the process of a little known and unique tradition of cutting the Hackberry (Micocoulier) trees on the slopes of the Albères. They are cut for the fabrication of the worldly renowned whips (fouets) and riding crops (cravaches) used for the equestrian population and circus trainers. These trees, of the elm family, have been cultivated in the region of Sorède in the Pyrénées Orientales since the 13th century where the Mediterranean climate is particularly conducive to its development meaning that they like their roots in dry, poor soil and their trunks in the warm Mediterranean sunshine.
Nestling at the foot of the Albères in a green and peaceful setting where the Pyrenean foothills plunge into the Mediterranean, a small village has achieved world-wide recognition for its quality craftsmanship.
Sorède is the ‘Capital’ of the French whip!
Dating back to the 13th century this heritage activity has been one of fabricating handcrafted whips (fouets), riding crops (cravaches) and various articles for the equestrian sport, hunting and the circus by using the globally unique wood from the famous ‘Hackberry’ tree known locally as the ‘Micocoulier’.
Not only is part of history right on our doorstep, this ancient craft is now fully undertaken by people with disabilities who, when you meet them, will enthuse about their demanding role in which meticulous precision is paramount and in which they take enormous pride in perpetuating this historic tradition.
Their world-wide reputation for their craft goes before them as ‘Nothing can replace the whips and riding crops of Sorède’. Buy one and it will last you a lifetime.
The many products hand-made by these now craftsmen in Sorède find themselves in outlets all over the world. Clients range from Le Régiment de la Cavalerie de la Garde Républicaine, Ecoles militaires équestres, numerous circuses to the Disney Resort Paris, and they can boast Hermès as one of its most prestigious.
Production started in the 13th century in a small factory and was very profitable. However over the centuries plants and factories closed one after the other giving way to other activities including cigarette production until only a handful of craftsmen remained to keep the tradition alive up to the late 1970s.
Happily, seen as an integral part of Catalan heritage, the craft was revived in 1981 with the help of CAT (Centre d’aide pour le travail) who took up the cause. Until retirement, the three former craftsmen patiently passed on their ideas and knowledge and worked with the APAJH (Association pour Adultes et Jeunes handicapés) in order to further continue the expertise of their forefathers.
Now ESAT (L’Establissement et Service d’Aide par le Travail) employs over 80 handicapped personnel in Sorède in a purpose built factory constructed in 2008.
The famous tree used for this purpose, the Hackberry (Micocoulier), belongs to the elm family and has been growing naturally in the region of Sorède in the Pyrénées Orientales since the 13th century. Fearing the frost it tolerates dry, poor soils and has the ability to adapt to the summer heat.
Cut on the full moon and when there is a good north wind, thereby avoiding the appearance of wood worm, these 15-20 year old trees with a minimum diameter of 20cms are dried for 2 years before being used in the manufacturing process.
The wood from the Hackberry has the quality of being supple, flexible and durable enabling it to be used for a wide variety of products from fabricating walking sticks, tool handles and, as it can easily be braided, for making whips and riding crops. Due to its location it has been designated the ‘Perpignan’ wood, the name given to the high quality hand-crafted carters’ whip-handles.
|ESAT de Sorède (L’Establissement et Service d’Aide par le Travail) is managed by APAJH (Association pour Adultes et Jeunes handicapés). It opened its doors in 1981 in Sorède (Pyrénées-Orientales) and accommodates over 80 people with recognised disabilities. It is a medico-social institution that has for its objective the social and professional integration of disabled adults. They welcome people whose ability to work does not allow them to work in an ordinary environment i.e. less than a third of the capacity of an able-bodied person. With financial assistance from the state they also offer health and educational support to promote personal and social development.|
The proposed work of these employees through ESAT is adapted according to their disabilities and ranges from maintenance and creation of green spaces, packaging and contract work, laundry and ironing and in Sorède the world recognised manufacture of premium quality hand-made whips and riding crops.
The production of a premium whip and a riding crop requires nearly 30 different intricate stages depending on the product and can take between 12 to 14 hours to produce. The craftsmen still use a few old machines, some of which work with steam, in order to cut, shape, twist, (fascinating)!, weave, dry, sand, polish and varnish the wood before the hand-braided leather straps are added to make the finished product.
The reputation of the whips is longstanding coming from the goodness of the wood, its suppleness flexibility and its beautiful yellow colour. The nature of the braiding process enables a sleeve length of up to 3 metres – very handy for taming lions!!
And there is no waste! Every bit of wood is used. The off-cuts are hand-crafted to make unique and prestigious objects and trinkets from bracelets to bowls, candle holders to lamp bases which are sold in their factory boutique.
Premium crafts world-renowned. A must to visit!
A visit to the factory to see the famous Hackberry whips being made is a must! A bilingual guide will enthusiastically explain and show you the secrets of this incredible manufacturing tradition in a free tour. A truly great way to spend an enchanting moment.
On our visit we were charmingly guided round by bilingual (French and English) Michel. A truly competent and knowledgeable gentleman – and I use that word ‘gentleman’ in the most complimentary way possible.
Your tour will start with a fascinating short film showing the history of the tradition and the numerous stages of the process. The video is in French but it is quite easy to understand even if you are not great with the French language!
Once the video is over the tour starts but it starts in the ‘cinema’ room. There are various photos depicting the story of the manufacturing process through the ages. It is explained extremely well and, of course, your guide is only too happy to answer your questions. The tour then takes you through the existing process and although you cannot actually enter the workshop there are windows which give you great views of the craftsmen and women at work. Wastage is kept to the absolute minimum as, when you reach the boutique, you will see for yourself.
Who would have believed…
…that this world-renowned craftsmanship steeped in tradition and history sits right here on our doorstep. Don’t content yourself with just reading about it. Take a trip through the history books: follow the journey and see and experience for yourself how this master art has maintained its roots and progressed through history to become what it is today. Feel how truly proud all these now skilled master craftsmen are at their work; of their part in the process in producing these world class products and of their culture here in this small corner of France. It’s truly amazing, incredible, fascinating! Not just the process and the products but what the organisation behind the process (ESAT) has achieved in promoting this idea and allowing it to evolve and provide a meaningful and worthwhile asset to the community, to France and to the handicapped people who work there and who are so proud (and they should be) of what they are achieving themselves.