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The rich history of Swiss embroidery

There is more to Switzerland than chocolates and watches. It also has a rich legacy of embroidery and lace

The Textile Museum in St. Gallen
The Textile Museum in St. Gallen

What were you wearing in the first photograph of you that still exists?” reads a plaque in the exhibition titled 100 Shades Of White, capturing the timelessness of the colour white. In a museum wholly dedicated to textiles and the fine art of embroidery and lace, the question doesn’t seem out of place.

The evolution of the textile industry, the technical innovations that have shaped it, the human stories involved in producing fabric and embroidery, and the emotions associated with clothing, are all captured and presented in fascinating exhibits that span the multistoreyed Textile Museum of St. Gallen, a city in the north-eastern corner of Switzerland.

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Housed in the Palazzo Rosso, which gets its name from the red brick façade and has a white, perforated metallic strip resembling lace above the entrance, the museum is an ode to St. Gallen’s glorious past. With a collection of over 56,000 objects, it’s a valuable repository of Swiss textile history, including lace patterns, textiles and embroideries from the Middle Ages to the present day, Egyptian textiles from late antiquity, fashion photographs and illustrations, sample books and garments worn by notable people.

Way before Switzerland was known for watches and chocolates, it was known for its textiles: Zürich for its silks, Glarus for its printed fabrics and St. Gallen for its embroidery and lace. In the seventh century, an Irish monk by the name of Gallus established a hermitage in the area; it eventually became a monastery. In this structure, wedged between the Alps and Lake Constance, the monks began to cultivate flax and hemp—crops suitable to the high altitude—and started weaving linen.

From 1730, imported cotton began to replace linen. According to Silvia Gross, head of communications at the Textile Museum, companies began hand- embroidering the pieces to enhance the value of the fabric spun in Switzerland. Around 1828, Joshua Heilmann, a French inventor who worked towards improving textile manufacturing, developed an embroidery machine that used 300 needles simultaneously.

Embroidered fabric became one of the largest components of Swiss exports, accounting for nearly 50% of world production at the time. By 1912, two out of three people in St. Gallen were making their living from embroidery, an industry dominated by women.

Top fashion houses from around the world patronised St. Gallen’s intricately-embroidered textiles from the early 1900s. World War I and the Great Depression led to massive losses for the industry, however, and though it saw a resurgence in the 1950s, it never regained its former glory. Nevertheless, embroidery and lace from St. Gallen are still sought after by haute couture brands like Dior, Akris, Chanel, Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent. Former US first lady Michelle Obama wore a custom butter-yellow St. Gallen lace gown to Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration in 2009.

The museum’s humble beginnings date back to 1863, when it started as the Kaufmännische Direktorium, or Chamber of Commerce St. Gallen-Appenzell—collecting fabric samples for display. With time, personal collections and company archives also entered the museum’s collections. In 1878, it became the Industry and Trade Museum, moving to its current location in the heart of St. Gallen’s Old Town in 1886. It was renamed the Textile Museum in 1982. The museum doesn’t draw just people keen to delve into the history of textiles but also students, researchers and designers.

The permanent exhibits take visitors on a journey of lace and embroidery production: from sources of inspiration to the creation of intricate designs, first on paper and then on fabric. Interactive exhibits and videos highlight the stories of weavers who brought the designs to life. A roster of temporary exhibits keeps things interesting. One exhibition, Robes Politiques, examined the power of women’s fashion, and the way clothing was used to convey both authority and stature. The exhibit, on during my visit in June, celebrated the colour white, underlining its many cultural and religious connotations, association with hygiene, and versatility. In a city known as the “White City” because of the reams of fabric once spread out to bleach in the sun, a paean to the colour white seemed entirely fitting. Times may have changed but textiles will always be an important part of St. Gallen’s legacy.

Chaitali Patel is a Dubai-based travel and culture writer.

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