Swiss Tour I – Ballenberg

I’ve blogged before about how a country’s textile history often shaped its social and cultural history, as well as infrastructure and landscape, and Switzerland is no exception to that. While perhaps most famous for the St. Gallen embroideries and lace (and you can see some fantastic examples of that at the local textile museum), Switzerland also has a rich history of silk and cotton production and even passementerie, particularly in the Basel region.

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I’d really enjoyed my trips to places like Nyon and St. Gallen and so, for a little summer holiday, I thought it’d be nice to have a tour of Switzerland and finally see one of Switzerland’s other famous textile hubs, Appenzeller, famous for its iconic, delicate whitework that is often worked with some pale blue threads. One of the bonuses of Switzerland being a relatively small country is that it doesn’t take long to travel across all of it, and, owing to its absolutely fabulous, meticulously efficient, incredibly wonderful train network, it can be just as efficient to do things by train as by road. (SBB – the Swiss train company – has some great recommendations of train tours so you can make the most of the picturesque landscape so the travelling parts can be as fun as the visiting).

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However, a Swiss tour would not be a Swiss tour without spending some time going up and down mountains and enjoying some of the many lakes, including one of the alpine lakes, Oeschinensee. The first hotel on the route came with a charming spinning wheel in the hall. It’s very strange, spinning is not such a popular leisure activity in Switzerland as it is somewhere like the UK, but you seem to see old wheels everywhere, either as decoration or for sale. Whether that is because they were more commonplace a household item until recently, I don’t know. Finding a good spinning shop is a bit trickier though – but I do have somewhere to suggest later in the tour.

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The first main stop was to Ballenberg, Switzerland’s big open-air museum. The idea behind Ballenberg is to recreate a mini-Switzerland, complete with historical buildings in the different architectural styles from the different regions of Switzerland and with re-enactments of many old skills, from weaving to cheese and lace making.

While the weather was somewhat suboptimal for an open-air museum, you can duck in and out of many of the houses to stay dry. Many of the houses are old farm buildings, many of which you can still see in the ‘wild’ across Switzerland, but the documentation is excellent and in a number of languages I think you can probably only enjoy in Switzerland. Some of the buildings have information on the geographic location of the building and its age but others have some information on the lives of the craftsman that once inhabited the building – such as the roping shed belonging to the manufacturing business started by Karl Bartholome Iten, who spawned something of a ropemaking dynasty. P.S. Does anyone know where one can get a non-industrial scale tresseuse? Or even what they are called in English?

Dotted between the houses are plenty of farm animals, including many very adorable chickens, some goats (including some highly entertaining miniature goats) and terrifying Swiss cows that seem to be a truly monstrous size. You might even see a horse and cart scooting around the museum. There are a few restaurants on site that offer a range of different dishes, but if you can find the place where you can see the cheesemaking process (and have a go at doing some stirring yourself) they have rather a lot of cheese made on site that you can try.

Other buildings of particular interest are home to weaving and bobbin lace demonstrations. Switzerland is an interesting place for both embroidery and lacework, as there is so much cross-influence from all the neighbouring countries, with a few distinct styles of its own. There are some nice examples of different techniques on display and regular demonstrations if you want to see the magic of bobbin lace being created live. Especially learning to do bobbin lace myself, I find the incredible speed at which experts can work out absolutely enthralling.

There is the Kurszentrum Ballenberg, where you can learn a number of handicrafts. They’ve got an impressive schedule and if you’re organising a visit in advance, it may be worth trying to time it so that it coincides with something you’re interested in!

Other small highlights are a passementerie loom hidden in the top of one of the building, much like the looms in Lyon. They’re well-hidden but make sure you hunt around and dig through all the drawers to see various examples of the ‘ribbon embroidery’ as they call it.

There’s even hat making…

…and even more chickens!

It’s a really interesting museum with plenty of different things, from looking at historical pet and bird keeping or different medical treatments. Well worth a trip though just to see some very nice textile examples though!

5 thoughts on “Swiss Tour I – Ballenberg

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