ANNE WANNER'S Textiles in History   /  publications

Embroidery in Eastern Switzerland in the 19th century, lecture October 1996 in St.Petersburg, Symposium Eremitage, by Anne Wanner-JeanRichard, Switzerland

  Since the 13th c. the production of thread and textiles has played an important role in St Gallen, which is a small town in the eastern part of Switzerland. In the 19th c. this importance grew, through the spinning of cotton and the weaving of muslin, through whitework embroidery by hand, and from the second half of the century onwards through the production of machine embroidery.

I. Hand embroidery

In the 18th c. a cotton industry in hand embroidery developped. The first document of an embroidery order dates from 1753. Another document of 1773 already mentions 6000 embroiderers in eastern Switzerland and by 1790 a local historian, H. Wartmann, writes about 30'000 to 40'000 persons employed in this industry. It is believed that this high number included all workers in the textile branch of the region. From this early period only very few embroideries are preserved in museums collections. They were mostly decorated with chainstitch and also pulled and drawn work

In the first half of 19th century there are still no dated embroideries. Probably french companies sent cloth with preliminary tracings to be embroidered. But as it seems, Swiss women were

  soon making their drawings themselves in the french style. The library of the St.Gallen Textile Museum preserves several books with designs, some of the earlier ones dating from 1860 and 1865. With the period of the world exhibitions the documents become more numerous. The St.Gallen Museum owns a table cloth which was made for the London exhibition of 1851. The museum also collected hand-kerchives, collars and cuffs dating from 1850 to 1900. They are decorated with very fine whitework embroidery and many of them were embroidered in the region of St Gallen. Some years ago a collection of 170 designs for whitework embroideries were found. They must have been created between 1850 and 1860. The designers name, Willi Koch, is written on one of the patterns. With the help of archives it could be found, that Willi Koch worked for an embroidery business in St Gallen which was not successful and went into liquidation in 1861. The designs represent a culmination of hand-embroidery in the eastern part of Switzerland. Any further development was difficult because machine embroidery became more and more important. Hand embroidery moved back into the mountaineous part of Appenzell. Here it survived as a cottage industry for specialities up to the present day.

  II. Machine embroidery

Types of embroidery machines:

The basis for the development of the machine embroidery was the invention of the so-called 'hand-machine', two of which were sold in 1829 by their inventor Josua Heilmann from Mulhausen, to the St Gallen cloth merchant Franz Mange. These looms, entirely operated by hand, were not suitable for large-scale production, since at least two people were needed for their operation. Moreover, the final products were rather coarse in their appearance, and because of the time required for working, only a relatively small amount of embroidered material could be produced. This type of machine was improved in the following years by entrepreneurs and mechanics in St Gallen; in particular the pantograph was changed and shorter needles were introduced which permitted the usage of finer yarn and more delicate material. The machine could be operated by a single person, and due to the enlargement of the machine - first to 2.70 metres, then to 3.60 metres and later to 4.50 metres - the number of embroideries produced simultaneously rose.

The Schiffli machine was invented by the Swiss Isaak Groebli at Uzwil. Like the handmachine, the Schiffli machine also consists of a system of many needles. In the beginning the 2 types did not work much quicker than the human hand, but at the same

  time 100 or 200 identical motifs could be produced. Like the sewing machine, the Schiffli machine works with 2 threads. Since 1906 it has become possible to combine the Schiffli with a Jacquard system and from then onwards the so called automatic machine developed rapidly.

The chainstitch machine was invented by Antoine Bonnaz in Paris and sold in 1867 by the firm of Emile Cornély to St Gallen. It is still called the Cornély machine. This machine made it possible to produce a chainstitch-line by using a hook shaped needle. It worked with one thread.

The Lorraine machine works like the sewing machine with a system of 2 threads. Satinstitch-work and also 'Ajour-work' can be done here.

Embroideries which are produced on the Schiffli or on the Lorraine machine can be identified very easily as machine works, because the second thread can be seen clearly on the reverse side of the embroidery.
The handmachine however works exactly like the hand and it needs some practice to identify those embroideries as machine products. The machine works more evenly than the hand, and on the reverse side of the work it can be seen that the thread passing from one small part of the design to another has each time an identical point of entry and exit.

  III. Types of Machine Embroideries

Machine embroideries are devided into various articles: Entredeux (insertions) are embroidered strips that will be fastened between 2 fabrics. Bandes (edgings) are used for the decoration of seams or edgings. The socalled galons are embroidered stripes which can be fastened to the material as a decorative braid. Allover is a pattern spread evenly over the background. Motifs are isolated figures like flowers, animals, figures. These were sewn onto the fabrics.

In Eastern Switzerland machine lace was produced on the embroidery machine as well. Specially developped tools made different kinds of holes into the fabric, then flat stitch embroidery was usually added (Bohrware). Very important was the invention of the corrosion technique in 1883, which also led to the production of mechanical lace. Here the pattern is first embroidered very tightly on a base fabric, which initially had to consist of an animal fibre, such as wool or silk. The embroidery thread had to be a vegetable fibre, i.e. cotton or linen. The subsequent chemical treatment caused the base fabric to disappear entirely, leaving only the solid cotton embroidery. Later a method was developped by which the previously treated fabric could be dissolved through mere washing in water.

  The dissolving technique was very suited for a persuasive imitation of several kinds of lace: Mechanical Venetian lace was produced which even experts could not recognise as machine-produced work. Especially popular was mechanical Filet lace and also Irish crochet lace. Macramé and techniques from foreign countries like sol-lace from Paraguay or Manila lace were produced with the chemical method.

Complicated shapes, like collars, were separated into individual pieces which subsequently were produced in large numbers on the embroidery machines. Later, before they underwent the dissolving process, they were joined together by the sewing machine into their final form.

For the success of machine embroidery two points turned out to be important: first the invention of the sewing machine which simplified the manufacturing of the 'bandes' and 'entredeux', and second the sale to the United States: in 1855 the American purchasing agent, Mr. Hamel arrived at
St.Gallen. He sent the embroideries to the States via Hamburg in order to conceal the place of origin. And he called them 'hamburghs'.

  IV. School of Design in St Gallen

As there was no academy in this small town of eastern Switzerland, drawing, painting and design were taught in an art college which had been established in 1867. In 1883 the first director of this school retired for reasons of health. A new director had to be found and it was Friedrich Fischbach from Hanau (Germany), who was willing to come to St Gallen. He had been teaching Ornament since 1870 and he was editing a book on the ornaments of fabrics. Fischbach sold his collection of historic fabrics to the museum collection and he emphasized the historic ornament and historism as a style. In St Gallen he enlarged the former school of design into a school of design for Industry, and together with a library and the museum it formed a one unit. A new building for the 3 instituts was inaugurated in 1886. After an activity of 5 years Fischbach's contract was not renewed and he left the town.

In 1883, on the occasion of the expansion of the Institute, the customary courses in pattern drawing were supplemented by so-called dilettante classes. The idea was to create a 'seat of learning for feminine work' in St Gallen. The students of these needlework classes did not pursue a specific career amd attended the classes to further their education rather than with a view to gainful employment. Helene Weidenmüller (1850-1938) from Kassel, Germany, arrived in St Gallen in 1883 and until 1891 she taught drawing, painting and needlework. The annual reports of the school and the museum tell us that she travelled to Vienna and Salzburg to study and to copy old samplers, during her stay at the St Gallen Institute.

  In May 1888 Johannes Stauffacher (1850-1916) started to teach at the school and with him Naturalism dominated the style of decoration in St Gallen. He was a former student of the school of design, he had continued his studies in Paris, where he became a wellknown designer. He considered exact plant studies as the highest form of art and in St Gallen he quickly got a reputation as a flower painter. There were however several discussions with his superiors, in their opinion wheras Fischbach had emphasized ornament too much, Stauffacher had not paid enough attention to it. Moreso Stauffacher very often expressed himself in a negative way concerning the factories directors' understanding of art, and finally, but only in 1904, he had to leave his job for this reason.

Since January 1892 Emil Hansen (later called Nolde), form northern Germany had been teaching ornamental design in St Gallen. He had seen the advertisment for a teaching position in the art and craft museum of Berlin. And as a result of his sketch-books of historic ornaments, he was selected from among 34 candidates. During the first 3 years, until 1895, he concentradet fully on his teaching task. Then, in Munich, he met Georg Hirt, who edited the newspaper 'die Jugend' in 1896, and from the beginning Hansen designed ornaments for this paper. His style changed from historism to art nouveau, which was not liked at all in St Gallen. At the end of 1897 Hansen published his mountain-postcards in an edition of 100'000. He sold them in 10 days, and so the artist's financial problems were solved. From Munich he wrote to the director in St Gallen that he would not be returning to the school for January 1898.

  V. Manufacturers

In 1840, Franz E. Rittmeyer established the first factory with 12 machines in St Gallen. Larger enterprises operated outside the town, like Rittmeyer who in 1854 founded a factory with more than hundred looms in Bruggen.

The Iklé family became important for St Gallen, for its industry and also for the town's Textile Institute. Leopold Iklé was born 1838 in Hamburg, Germany, where his father had a textile trade. This firm received ordres from Denmark, Sweden and Russia. Aged 19 Leopold travelled to Switzerland, and St Gallen granted him the right of residence. Here he established a machine embroidery business. In the early 1870s also his brother Adolf Iklé entered the St Gallen business, brother Ernest settled in Paris in 1871, and in 1885 the branch Jacoby-Iklé opened in London. These connections with the world's metropolises proved to be of great importance.

Leopold Iklé, initially a business man, became more and more interested in old lace and embroideries; he first used them as pattern for the industrial production and he soon became a passionate collector. Around 1900 he gave a large part of his collection to the St Gallen Textile Museum, and his donation became an important foundation pillar of the present Museum Collection.


content   Last revised 5 October, 2004