Given the historical importance of textiles to the town and its interest in trying to preserve as much of its history as possible, it probably comes as no surprise that St Gallen has a wonderful museum dedicated to textiles with regularly changing exhibitions if you’re lucky enough to have the opportunity to attend regularly.
For a specialist museum, the Textilmuseum St Gallen has an impressively expansive collection. There are several floors, one of which is mostly occupied by the very special Textile Library that has books upon books with collections of patterns, fabrics and designs and is an active research centre as well as archive. The museum dates back to 1878 and the building it is housed in is also quite special and very beautiful – I particularly enjoyed the stairwells – known as the ‘Palazzo Rosso’ or the red palace for its red brick exterior.
Entrance is 12 CHF for full-price tickets, where you will get not a usual boring paper ticket, but some charming scraps of fabric with all the necessary details printed on in gold. It’s a lovely touch. There are guided tours which are a little pricey unless there’s at least four or five of you going. I’m not sure if there are any regularly organised ones or local companies that can team you up with some other people but this might be worth looking into if you want to save a few pennies.
One of the first sights to greet you is the humongous hand embroidery machine, that you can see being demonstrated at certain times. The level of intricacy that can be achieved in the embroidered designs with such an unwieldly piece of equipment is incredibly impressive, though having a machine that is several metres long also makes it possible to embroider several metres of pattern repeats all at once. These machines were first developed in the 1800s and were largely responsible for putting St Gallen embroidery on the map, as it was obviously much more efficient to use these than it was to make these creations by hand. Eventually, some of the precision of these machines was sacrificed for an increasing in their processing speed, probably motivated by the growing international demand of the textiles produced here.
The bottom floor of the museum is largely local laces and embroidery, with these huge, sumptuous books bursting with all the lace samples from the time. While the most impressive lace is probably the mixed collection from all over Europe upstairs, it becomes very easy to understand exactly why Switzerland was a world leader for fine textiles. There is a lot to gawp at, and the intricacy and skill behind the work speaks for itself. I particularly enjoyed a lot of the metal laces. Several historical rulers nearly bankrupted themselves with their appetites for lavish amounts of lace, including laces made from gold threads, where the bill for creating items would add up very quickly!
Switzerland has a rich and interesting textile industry, starting with linen from the Middle ages onwards. This is partly because flax grows very well in the region around Lake Constance, so there was a good local supply, and the linen fabrics produced became very well known for their quality, being exported all over the world, including North Africa, Russia and Turkey. Many families would make their livings spinning and weaving at home for merchants who would take the finished cloth to sell. This remained largely unchanged until the 1730s, when African cotton was replacing linen as the dominant textile, and industrialisation starting in England, and the creation of mechanical spinning frames meant domestic production started to no longer be financially viable.
However, the Swiss market adapted well to the age of industrialisation, and by the 1800s, Zurich was the centre of mechanical spinning in Switzerland. From the 1850s, mechanisation had also met the world of embroidery, with many of the ‘hand embroidery’ machines producing the fine textiles Switzerland was still known for. The techniques needed to machine-produce broderie anglaise or guipure were actually invented in St. Gallen and kept the embroidery business in Eastern Switzerland booming until 1912, with the employment of two thirds of the local population being dependent on embroidery.
This all fell apart by 1935, when the World Wars and economic crisis in the US, alongside changing fashion and overproduction, decimated the Swiss export market. This led to nearly 17 000 embroidery machines being scrapped, encouraged by the Swiss government, to try and encourage Eastern Switzerland to find a new way of life other than textiles. However, while there were more textile companies taken casualty in the 1970s, the textile industry did somewhat recover, with a new focus on haute couture goods but not nearly to the prominence it had once enjoyed. As I mentioned in my previous post, while high-end technical textiles are keeping many firms going, the future of the textile industry with the strong Swiss Franc means that there are still challenging times ahead.
I’m sorry about some of the photographs of the exhibit not really doing the items justice. It’s always a bit tricky without a polariser trying to get good photographs through glass with all of the lighting, but I hope it gives you a little taste of why it’s definitely worth making your way to St. Gallen for a visit! In the event you can’t make it in person, If you can’t make it in person, over a thousand items in the collection are online (with very nice photographs!) so if you’re looking for a bit of inspiration or to do some historical research, then this is an invaluable resource.
The next floor of the museum has a mixture of laces from all the major lace producing regions (Belgium, France, England, Italy) and more. They also have a regularly changing exhibition, which when I went was on ‘Die Spitzen der Gesellschaft’ or ‘Lace and Status’ examining how lace was used to denote wealth and status in society. Apparently during the beginning of the sixteenth century the trend was for lace ruffs, ever increasing in size, until they required metal frameworks worked into them to support the weight. While they are beautiful objects, I can’t imagine some of the ruffs, like the one threatening to eat Phillip III’s head in Andrès López Polanco’s portrait of him, made life and mobility very straightforward.
There were plenty of other charming garments, from lace trims on sleeves and shoes to enjoy as part of the exhibition. One of the galleries was devoted to lace in the context of Spanish fashions (see the previous reference to Phillip III’s head-eating ruff) in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century and the other covered a slightly later period in French fashion laces until the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century. France was relatively late to the lace game, but when King Louis XIV (Le Roi Soleil) came to power, his financial minister realised his taste for lace was a little too rich for the kingdom’s coffers, as it was predominantly imported from Italy, the largest lace producer at the time. To try and stop the outflow of wealth, they tried to hire the most skilled Italian lace produces, encouraging the with offers of French citizenship and encourage them to develop new French styles of lace. Lace à la français soon started appearing at the French court and became one of the predominant fashions in Europe.
As well as the beautiful, huge Textile Library, there are a few other interesting video exhibitions showing the process of lace being created (at about 20 x speed…) and some of the processes used to create various pieces. The museum shop is definitely worth checking out for surprisingly affordable souvenirs and some very good literature – the museum has published a few books (including one on their collection) including an interesting text on the embroidery stitches used in historical pieces, in English, French, German and Italian, all at the same time.
For reasons I can’t really understand, one of the major complaints on Tripadvisor about the place (in my opinion unfairly) is about the lack of English-language signage. Nearly all the permanent exhibitions have their descriptions in a few languages, and the temporary exhibitions, or where alternative translations aren’t available on the wall have hand-outs in the main three Swiss languages, Spanish and English. There are few parts that are exclusively in German, but they are few and far between. However, just in case you might need it, I’ve included a little bit of German vocabulary at the bottom of the post that might help you out. In terms of missing translations, it’s mostly just the materials and item descriptions but this isn’t too difficult to understand. One of the great things about the German language is that often, if you need to describe something more complex, you can just stick all the appropriate nouns together to make a compound noun that does the job you need. This is how you end up with compact and concise words like ‘Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften’ which of course means ‘legal protection insurance companies’.
Overall, this is a lovely museum and please go spend lots of money on the entrance fees and in the museum shop to preserve the work they are doing here. As an educational resource, the library and archive is an absolute treat and I hope they will get the opportunity to continue this work and putting together such interesting exhibitions for a long time to come.
Maschinenstickerei machine embroidery
Kloppelspitze bobbin lace