ANNE WANNER'S Textiles in History   /  publications

Embroidery Designs by Willi Koch
a paper, given at the CIETA meeting of 1991 in Copenhague, Denmark, by Anne Wanner-JeanRichard

  In the collection of the Textile Museum of St. Gallen there is a great number of handkerchiefs, collars and cuffs dating from 1850 to 1900. They are decorated with fine whitework embroidery and many of them were embroidered in the region of St. Gallen. In this paper I want to show a group of these works of applied art which were designed and embroidered in the eastern part of Switzerland.

So far the following documents indicate that the art of embroidery was known in St. Gallen:
- literary sources: in older literature it can be read that designs for embroidery first came from Paris. Swiss women embroidered these patterns at home and then they were sent back and sold in France.
- in the textile museum some unfinished embroideries indicate that such work were done in the region.
- the library of the textile museum preserves several books with designs. Some of the earlier ones date from 1860 and 1865. A printed work with patterns was edited in 1890, Ferdinand Baenziger from Heiden designed the motives.

  Independent of these documents some time ago I found a box with 170 designs for whitework embroidery in the neighbouring museum of Frauenfeld. The designer's name, Willi Koch, is written on one of the pieces.
The paintings came to Frauenfeld in 1920 and according to the inventory book of this museum they were created between 1850 and 1860. This means that they are older than the designs kept in the textile library of St. Gallen..

With the help of archives and with St. Gallen inhabitants' registration the following facts could be investigated:
The designs come from an embroidery business in St.Gallen whose name was Custer, Koch & Cie, trade and manufacture of fine embroideries, run by 4 people named Custer, Unold, H. Koch and W. Koch. The company was not successful, it went into liquidation in 1861.


design for whitework embroidery,
white paint on brown paper,
by Wilhelm Koch, 1850-1860, Historic Museum of Canton Thurgau, Frauenfeld, Inv.Nr. T 1785-112


part of a collar, partly embroidered,
pattern drawn on the fabric, 1850-1869,
Textilemuseum St.Gallen, Inv.Nr. 20556


design by Wilhelm Koch,
painted with white paint on brown paper and
small pieces of fabric glued on the paper,
Historic Museum of Canton Thurgau, Frauenfeld,
Inv.Nr. T 1785-173


relief embroidery worked after
the design of Wilhelm Koch,
Textilmuseum St.Gallen, Inv.Nr. 20310

  Willi Koch was born in 1823, he was a designer and he settled in St. Gallen in 1857. His wife was Dorothy Ochs, they had 2 children.
In the Journal of St. Gallen of August 4th 1866 another trace of W. Koch could be found. In an advertisement he offered sewing machines. It seems that he was more successful with this firm - it can be found in the addressbook of the city up to the end of the century:
in 1897 the name is Koch-Ochs, Wilhelm
in 1899 the name is Koch-Ochs, Dorothy, widow
Willy Koch died on november 13th, 1897.

The years of Kochs's early embroidery business were very important ones. The Swiss Federal constitution of 1848 brought a standardisation of measurements, of money, of the postal system. Therefore the time to establish new enterprises was favourable. Hand embroidery at that time had already been known for 100 years in and around St. Gallen. In 1851 Swiss hand embroideries were very successful at the Great exhibition in London. But in those years another technique became more and more important - it was machine embroidery. The world exhibition of 1862 in London showed these new and inexpensive products. Times for handembroidery became very hard and many companies were not able to survive. Hand embroidery moved back into the mountainous part of Appenzell where it has survived as a cottage industry up to the present days.

Let us go back to Willi Koch and his designs. His works of art are very fine miniature paintings, executed with white paint on brown or blue paper. In addition,

  parts of preprinted fabrics were pasted to the same brown paper. In this way he imitated relief embroidery and lace decoration. It can be said, that the designs for fine application embroidery were his special effort.

Supposedly the finished works of art must have been very expensive and therefore not easy to sell.

I am now going to show some of the designs and compare them with dated works of applied arts of the region. We can distinguish 2 main subject groups, which are:
- flowers and ornaments, and
- landscapes with figures

Flowers and ornaments:
Koch liked the motif of the rocaille very much. Generally these motifs of the 18th century still existed in the rural parts of Switzerland in the 19th century. The following 3 examples illustrate this fact:

- example of a painted cupboard of 1830, made around the time of Willhelm Koch birth
- certificate of baptism or examination papers from the eastern part of Switzerland from 1830 to 1860 show that the motif was still in use in everyday applied art
- at the end of the 19th century we still find the Rocaille in drawings by Johannes Stauffacher. He was a teacher of design in the textile museum. In 1897 Stauffacher's "studies" were published and there he writes about
the ".... heavy Renaissance and Rococo "squiggles" of the designers and architects that impressed us for too long and ruined our taste ..."



design of Wilhelm Koch
for relief embroidery
around 1850, Historic Museum of Canton of Thurgau, Frauenfeld
Inv.Nr. T 1785-75



cupboard from Urnaesch,
eastern part of Switzerland,
painted by Conrad Starck,
with the date 1825 and the names of
Johann Ulrich Boff - Anna Engler,
collection Bruno Bischofberger


part of hand written examination paper,
eastern part of Switzerland,
bearing the date of 1830 and the name
Anna Elisabetta Schedler
Historic Museum of St. Gallen




design of Wilhelm Koch
for relief embroidery
around 1850, Historic Museum of Canton of Thurgau, Frauenfeld, Inv.Nr. T 1785


drawing by Johannes Stauffacher,
end of 19th century,
Textile library St. Gallen, Inv.Nr. 121/8

  Flowers bound into garlands and bouquets or shown in baskets are the most common motifs of the "Biedermeier" style. In the first half of the 19th century in the eastern part of Switzerland it was customary to write documents for examination day at schools as well as congratulations for special occasions. Our artist could have written similar documents during his early education.

The textile museum of St. Gallen owns a handkerchief with a basket of flowers on it. There is no doubt that this embroidery was made according to Koch's design. A very similar piece kept in the Cleveland Art museum in USA proves, that designs could be used several times. One definite piece of hand embroidery is not imperatively also a unique piece of art.

Here I would like to deal very briefly with another kind of embroidery design, which also very often showed flowers and was well known in the 19th century, namely the patterns for cross-stitch or Berlin work. This kind of graphic art developed between 1830 and 1840 in Berlin, and reached its heyday between 1840

  and 1850. The most famous publisher was L.W. Wittich. There were other publishers in southern Germany as well, and from here many of the patterns came into the collection of the textile library in St. Gallen.

As far as the technique is concerned, the motifs were first engraved and then hand-painted by homeworkers. Later on, around 1870, they were lithographed. Koch must have known these patterns and he might have been influenced by the motifs.

In Koch's paintings we find bell-shaped and exotic flowers and similar motives appear for instance on ladies collars.
Maybe Jean Pillement (1728-1808), born in Lyons about 100 years before Koch, had some influence on him. Pillement was a textile designer, Koch could have seen and studied his works in Lyons. During many centuries there were strong connections between Lyons and St. Gallen. We even believe that hand embroidery was brought from there to St. Gallen.


flower basket, design for gobelin work
around 1850, Textile Library, St. Gallen


design for a cushion,
editor Hertz and Wegener, Berlin, 1850/60,
Historic Museum Basle, Inv.Nr. 2001.25.1


engraving by Jean Pillement


design for relief embroidery by Wilhelm Koch

  Now the second group with landscapes and figures will be treated:
Koch's painting of fir-trees and rabbits could be regarded as a local Appenzell landscape. I want to compare this motif with another kind of contemporary graphic art. It is a souvenir picture of 1857. The border around the representation of the city of St. Gallen is ornamented with embossed and punched paper and thus imitates lacework. Some of the local souvenir engravings show similar fir-trees, especially the one which was edited by the publisher Benziger at Einsiedeln. Such prints had become possible since 1852 with the invention of the lithographic high-speed printing machine and a special embossing and punching method. The new lithographic technique was used for splendid books like reprints of manuscripts, but also for souvenir or devotional and religious pictures.

The most important prints were published in big European cities, but the company of the Benziger Brothers in the small and remote village of Einsiedeln, central Switzerland, was able to meet this competition. Benziger's printing and publishing house originated from the printing house of the Benedictine monastery, which went into liquidation in Napoleonic times when the monks abandoned the monastery. The last technical director then started to develop the business on a private basis. The years 1833-60 were important. Benziger always had the latest technical acquisitions. Members of the Benziger family were appointed to leading positions. A good education was important and in the 1840s and 50s sons of the Benziger dinasty visited schools in St. Gallen.

  Another series of landscapes can be compared to the peasant painting of Appenzell. Since the second half of the 18th century, figurative painting appeared on peasant furniture. In the early 19th century the circular wooden bottoms of milking pails were painted. After 1865 we also find painted panels. Mostly the driving of the cattle to the high alps is shown. Often perspective is neglected in favour of narrative details. The type of art showing the herdsman's life became an established tradition. One of the artists, Johann Jakob Heuscher (1843-1901) painted panels and he also designed embroidery patterns. This proves that there are links between the fine naive painting and the art of Appenzell whitework embroidery.

A final group of Koch's landscapes shows figures in exotic surroundings. One may think one is looking at Chinoiseries. This may be due to the influence of Pillement. It could also be a consequence of the opening-up of China in those years. In St. Gallen there is a printed commercial report dating from 1861. Here a Dr. Lindau tells about his expedition to China in 1859. With the report he sent a collection of Chinese fabrics and a description of Chinese clothing to St. Gallen. Our example shows a figure in a ship. An embroidery with a very similar scene was worked according to this design. Today it belongs to the collection of the Art Museum of Cleveland USA.


souvenir picture, view of St. Gallen, 1858,
printed at Einsiedeln, central Switzerland,
coloured lithography, Ethnographic Museum Basle,
Inv.Nr. VI 29419

souvenir picture, with Appenzell embroideresses,
end of 19th c., coloured lithography,
printed at Einsiedeln, central Switzerland,
Ethnographic Museum Basle


design of Wilhelm Koch, for relief embroidery
around 1850, Historic Museum of Canton of Thurgau, Frauenfeld, Inv.Nr. T 1785-95


design of Wilhelm Koch, for relief embroidery
around 1850, Historic Museum of Canton of Thurgau


part of peasant painting, by Franz Anton Haim, 1890,
collection Bruno Bischofberger

detail of peasant painting, the mountain "hoher Kasten",
1854, by B. Laemmler (1809-1865)

  A very interesting handkerchief with a hunting scene is preserved in Stuttgart. Unfortunately the design does not exist in Koch's collection, but the embroidery was purchased in 1857 at the industrial exhibition in Berne. So it seems very probable that W. Koch was the creator. Besides in Koch's collection there are other exotic hunting pictures. Wondering where Koch could have been inspired to depict such scenes, I found the book "voyage prittoresque dans le Brésil". The pictures were done by Joh. Moritz Rugendas. This artist was born in Augsburg in 1802, and he travelled in South America in the 1820s. Later on he met Alexander von Humboldt in Paris and together they chose 100 pictures for the book. The text was going to be written by V.A. Huber, correspondent for Cotta publishers in Stuttgart. Rugendas stayed in South America for a second time and he returned to Germany in 1847. It seems possible that Koch met him in the last 10 years of his life. These years must have been Koch's years of training and education. So far I do not know anything certain about this period of his life, but stays in Paris, Lyons. Munich are possible.

I would like to close with a group of designs which are probably inspired by silhouettes of the 2nd half of the 19th century. Maybe they are the latest of Koch's designs.

  It seems possible that Koch, while dealing in sewing machines, continued with the embroidery business. Appenzell embroiderers used to have a collaborator in St. Gallen who supplied them with material and designs, and who would also take care of the selling of the pieces.

The time consuming relief embroideries and the exotic scenes slowly disappeared, but flower motifs and lace-stitch work continued to be produced.

Summarizing it can be said that Koch was a designer of figurative whitework embroideries which can be dated in the years between 1850 and 1860. These works represent a culmination of hand-embroidery in the eastern part of Switzerland. Any further development was difficult because of the stiff competition of the machines, and it is very tipical for the situation that Kochs business had to be liquidated in 1861. It seems that the rest of Kochs life was running quietly, he died in 1897 without special opitary notice. His artitic genius lived on in his grandson who was in our days a honoured and well known painter in St. Gallen.


corner of handkerchief with hunting scene,
1857, Stuttgart, Wuertembergisches Landesmuseum,
Inv.Nr. GT 2073


Scene from the book "pitturesque voyage through Brasil", with landscapes and inhabitants,
by Moritz Rugendas (1802-1858),
published 1835, which was influenced by artists like Alexander von Humboldt

  Section of the socalled panoramic wall paper with the views of Brasil, made in the manufacture of Zuber in Rixheim, Alsace, close to Mulhouse, 1829/30

Corner of handkerchief, with ship under palmtree,
around 1860, The Cleveland Museum of Art, USA,
Inv.Nr. 36.722

Detail of design by W. Koch, 1860,
Historic Museum of Canton Thurgau, Frauenfeld,
Inv.Nr. T 1785-70


Silhouette by Christiane Luise Duttenhofer,
Children, playing, under palm tree in a garland of flowers


Design by W. Koch, 1860,
Historic Museum of Canton Thurgau, Frauenfeld,
Inv.Nr. T 1785

  A very great talent in the art of silhouettes was Christiane Luise Duttenhofer (1776-1829) from South Germany. This kind of applied art was part of the education of well-to-do citizen's daughters.

Garland with für Johann Georg August von Hartmann


content   Last revised 30 November, 2004