Visiting St. Gallen, Switzerland

My first adventure of 2019 was to St Gallen, a Swiss town famous for its bustling textile trade and, if you want to be fair to all the official Swiss languages, otherwise known as Sankt Gallen/Saint-Gall/San Gallo/Son Gagl. As you might guess, its history in the embroidery, lacemaking and fashion industries has left a footprint of the city of great interest to anyone with a passing interest in textiles, crafts and art and this charming little place has plenty more feasts for the eyes as well.

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A Little History

Switzerland in general has a long history of textiles production, composed largely of linen production in the 16th century, before progressing into cotton and eventually the industrialisation of lace production around 1860. Much of this textile activity was centred around Zurich and the eastern side of Switzerland, with St Gallen and Appenzeller being two places that benefited from the great wealth that ‘white gold’, or lacemaking, brought to the region.

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This history has been immortalised through the naming of St Gallen and Appenzell embroidery, the intricate embroidery styles that the towns gave their namesakes too. St Gallen embroidery in particular is highly sought after by the luxury clothing and designer markets. Both are typically types of whitework, with St Gallen embroidery often being done by a hand embroidery machine – a huge mechanised beast that feels part sewing machine part giant loom that is the early form of the amazing programmable embroidery machines we have today. The work from Appenzeller typically veers towards hand embroidery but both are magnificently beautiful types of work and prized for their intricate, precise designs.

Around St Gallen today, many of the buildings reflect the textile history of the place, though have mostly been repurposed now as restaurants, hotels and shops but their beautiful facades remain. There is a nice walking tour you can follow with a downloadable app that provides commentary on the history and significance of the places which you can do at your own pace to try and get a sense of the scale the textile industry used to occupy.

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Like many other places that used to thrive as textile hubs, mechanisation and the demand for fast, cheap fashion has decimated the industries here that used to employ two thirds of the local residents. Unfortunately, recently Bischoff Textile, one of St Gall’s textile institutions, announced it would be moving its few remaining jobs in Switzerland abroad. However, the story is not all doom and gloom in the local area. Forster Rohner and other companies are still producing couture products for names like Armani and Gucci and Switzerland is a world leader in the area of ‘technical textiles’. There is a huge amount of active research into the development of new fibres for the needs of everyone from Olympic athletes to astronauts, and also how to develop ‘smart clothes’ that integrate everything from LEDs, so you can dress just like a Christmas tree, and biosensors. It might seem a long way removed from shearing sheep and spinning up the fluff but the technical textiles industry was estimated to be worth over $200000 million globally in 2017 and probably represents the future for textile manufacturers in most developed countries and a way of keeping hundreds of years of local textile expertise alive.

What to do

There’s plenty of culture to enjoy in St Gallen, both historical and modern. If you haven’t exhausted yourself plodding around on the self-guided textile trail and are feeling organised, there are some additional textile-themed guided tours you can do, if you book in advance. One of them includes the opportunity to see some of the looms in action and get an insight into what goes in on the design studios which sounds incredibly cool! This whole little region of Switzerland was heavily involved in the textile and lace trades, so if you’re feeling adventurous and don’t mind travelling a little, there are things like the Appenzeller museum to visit too.

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Probably one of the most famous attractions in St Gallen is the famous Abbey Library. The abbey itself was founded in the 8th century and its history and literary collections are so remarkable it is a UNESCO heritage site. The Abbey Library as it stands today is a little more modern. Built between 1758 and 1767 under the direction of Prince Abbot Coelestin von Staudach, it is an absolutely majestic room. Everywhere you look there are incredibly intricate carvings, and the ceiling looks like the artist felt like giving the Sistine Chapel a run for its money. If the architecture alone wasn’t enough, then there are the books. Oh the wonderful, wonderful books. The collection is so impressive that the library is still used as a research centre today. Unfortunately, there was an… interesting art exhibition on when I visited which was too intellectual for me to understand which sadly meant the famous manuscript collection were not out on display in the main library, but it was still worth it to see the main room.

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Just in case the Abbey Library didn’t bedazzle you to death with over-the-top rococo decadence, it’s worth a visit to the heart of the Abbey Cathedral. I found it surprisingly colourful inside with the red marble of the altar, luxuriously painted ceiling and flashes of red and green throughout the church. I am not sure how exactly it has been maintained or restored but, if it wasn’t for the extravagance on the construction, it looks like it could have been built yesterday. For those of you into monograms and illuminated lettering, there are some wonderful open manuscripts at the back of the church which are worth looking at.

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More Museums

St Gallen is sufficiently compact that the next glorious bit of history is never more than a few minute’s walk away so, for the textile fans, the next place you might want to head is the Textile Museum, which is so wonderful that it deserves its own post so sit tight until next week. It is housed in the in the ‘Palazzo Rosso’ in the old town, which was built in 1886 and a beautiful building in its own right. If you’re planning on visiting both the Abbey Library (entrance to the cathedral is free as it is still a working place of worship) and the Textile Museum, when you buy your ticket at once, you can get a discount ticket for the other to save you a few francs!

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Textile-lovers will also enjoy the Naturmuseum, or Natural History Museum, which had a fabulous exhibition on ‘250 years of dresses’ that is absolutely brilliant. Most of the items exhibited were Swiss textiles and spanned from old fashioned crinolines to sleek modern pieces decked out in beads. The information was available in a good range of languages and some of the creativity in displaying the exhibition (including this fabulous hat display) also made for a very enjoyable visit. The rest of the museum is both interesting architecturally and for the sheer broadness of the history, particularly if you’re looking to learn about some of the historical figures of the local area.

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Right near the Natural History Museum is ‘Museumstrasse’ (Museum Street) which is a very scenic park that’s home to another few museums. There’s the Kunst Museum for those of you with an appreciation for art that falls into the category of the modern and strange (or completely incomprehensibly bizarre if you ask me). A few more steps will take you to the Historical and Folklore Museum or a few other art galleries.

Craft Supplies

Given its history, you might expect St Gallen to be something of a crafting mecca with lots of shops bursting at the seams with dreamlike trims and feathers fit for a queen. It’s a small place and very easy to get around by foot, so the density of places you can find is quite impressive but what I was really hoping to come across was a lace making supplies shop. Despite asking around and some internet hunting I wasn’t able to find anything local, but if anyone knows something I don’t, please let me know!

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However, particularly for dressmaking fabrics and accessories there are a few places worth seeing. Filtex AG has something between an outlet and shop with beautiful items. Look at all this lovely, lovely lace. It’s closed Mondays and, unsurprisingly for Switzerland, Sundays (shop opening hours tend to be quite restricted in Switzerland so it’s worth checking places will be open before you go).

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One nice, approachable shop is Creativa. It’s surprisingly spacious inside and they strike an excellent balance between affordable and something a little different and special. There’s an awesome collection of vintage beads and accessories and if you’re into velvets, try not to pass out into their very lovely bolts of them in joy. They had this incredibly unusual metallic crepe type thing that I couldn’t help but pick up some off-cuts off!

If you have a budget the size of a small country, there are a few more exclusive offerings around in St Gallen. There’s Fil à fil, which you have to ring a bell to be let into. I assumed this meant that I wouldn’t be able to afford anything inside but I did enjoy pressing my nose against the window, particularly in awe at the beautiful sari fabrics! Bischoff Textil have an outlet not too far from the centre but I have to admit, beautiful as their textiles are, they’re a little beyond my budget! I’d probably have a heart attack thinking about cutting them.

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For the knitters, there’s a few little stores, including the charming Botique Tonja. It was here I was finally able to find some coveted Swiss Mountain Silk. I’ve been curious about this stuff since I heard of their factory and even more curious when I realised this was the stuff that Handmaiden Yarns uses as their bases that always seem to get rave reviews. The skein I picked up was pure mulberry silk laceweight, naturally dyed by Seiden Atelier, who do an impressive range of colours. I can confirm it is indeed a lovely singles yarn that almost seems to glitter in the light but one thing that is surprising as I guess it is a millspun is it’s not the most regular yarn in the world. The thickness varies a little and there are even a few kinks. I’ll have to see how it knits up but I strongly suspect it’s going to be delightful. Britta Nydegger, who I believe is the owner of Boutique Tonja, also has her own colour themed knitting books if you fancy a local memento of your time is this cute, friendly little store.

For a relatively small place, St Gallen has a huge amount to offer in terms of history and culture, and there is plenty of music and theatre going on here alongside all the textile and architectural loveliness. Next week, I’ll share with you a more in depth tour of its famous textile museum but I hope you get the chance to see some of these beautiful sights with your own eyes.

6 thoughts on “Visiting St. Gallen, Switzerland

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