Textile crafts

The history of the textile trade in Switzerland is one of success and crisis, of a glamorous world with a shady side. Few reminders of its former glory now remain.

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St. Gallen embroidery

St. Gallen’s traditional textile industry has shaped the townscapes, landscapes and people of eastern Switzerland. Expertise in manufacturing, workmanship and sales has been handed down from one generation to the next. Until the 17th century, the region was mainly known for its high-quality linen, and subsequently for cotton products. During its heyday in the 19th century, St. Gallen eventually became one of the leading regions for the export of embroidery. At the start of the 20th century, virtually every household had someone working at home or in a factory in the embroidery industry, which accounted for over 50 per cent of the world’s production at the time. The beginning of the First World War saw a dramatic fall in the demand for luxury goods, which led to the worst economic crisis the region has known. Whilst St. Gallen embroidery is no longer produced in the same quantity, nine embroidery businesses in eastern Switzerland now routinely use modern machinery to create innovative materials of superb quality for the world’s leading fashion designers. Big names like Pierre Cardin, Chanel, Christian Dior, Giorgio Armani, Emanuel Ungaro, Hubert de Givenchy, Christian Lacroix, Nina Ricci, Hemant and Yves Saint Laurent work with lace from St. Gallen. Michelle Obama even appeared at her husband’s inauguration in St. Gallen embroidery. Only a few people still use a hand embroidery machine and demonstrations can be seen at first hand in various museums in eastern Switzerland. textilland.ch has a list of museums dedicated to the traditional textile industry in eastern Switzerland. These include the Textile Museum in St. Gallen and the Appenzeller Volkskunde-Museum (Appenzell Folklore Museum) in Stein. The St. Gallen, Thurgau and Appenzellerland textile trails appeal to all the senses, as do the special textile rooms in selected hotels in eastern Switzerland.

Appenzell hand embroidery

Hand-embroidered goods are among the most famous products made by traditional methods in Appenzell Innerrhoden. While the embroidery industry in eastern Switzerland and its trading centre of St. Gallen underwent an impressive process of industrialisation between 1865 and 1913, Appenzell Innerrhoden remained on the sidelines in terms of machine embroidery. In fact, the trend was reversed here: whereas the industrial centres focused more on mass production and low prices, this skilled trade was gradually refined in Innerrhoden. The bulk of textiles was produced by cottage industries rather than in factories. Thousands of hardworking women contributed to the family finances with their work on embroidery frames. Some of the products were marketed directly to customers. Before the First World War, what were known as embroidery merchants would visit genteel spa towns in German-speaking areas during the high season, where they found a clientele with real purchasing power among the assembled aristocrats and captains of industry. In order to promote hand embroidery, introductory and advanced courses in a variety of stitch types were provided from 1889 onwards. Girls would normally learn the basics from their mother or an older sister and then attend these state-funded courses. Hand embroidery was also forced to change course when industrial embroidery collapsed during the First World War and the interwar period. A greater interest in durable consumer goods made in Switzerland came to its aid. Handkerchiefs, table linen and bedding for dowries and costumes made in Innerrhoden enjoyed great popularity as a result of their long lifespan. Although sales of hand-embroidered goods have steadily decreased since the mid-1950s, it is still possible to find women today who are experts in this craft. The Appenzeller Museum provides a good insight into this tradition. Appenzeller Museum
Appenzell hand embroidery Appenzell hand embroidery

Neuchâtel lace

For many years the canton of Neuchâtel was renowned for its lacemaking industry. This luxury product was highly sought after among ladies from European high society as early as the 17th century. In those days bobbin lacemaking employed five or six times more people in the region than the clockmaking industry. Neuchâtel is bobbin lace on a light background made of linen or silk – i.e. a so-called «blonde» – with a specific pattern. The motifs reflected changing fashions – it used to be Mechlin, then came Valenciennes and then Binche, not to mention many others with a variety of catchy names. From the 1830s onwards, the arrival of mechanical lacemaking from England, the ensuing price crash and changing fashions caused local production to decline. Bobbin lacemaking has since become purely a leisure activity. A handful of bobbin lace enthusiasts still manage to rework the old models and create new ones. Some museums such as the one in Valangin, the Rural and Craft Museum in La Chaux-de-Fonds and the regional museum of Val-de-Travers pay a fitting tribute to their past achievements.

Zurich silk industry

The textile industry plays an instrumental role in the history of the canton of Zurich. Of particular importance is the Zurich silk industry. It was first mentioned in the 14th century and enjoyed its first big boom in the 17th century. A number of silk factories were built in rural areas in the 19th century, mainly on the left bank of Lake Zurich. The silk trade was the leading manufacturing industry in the canton of Zurich from 1840 to 1900. Zurich thrived during the 1850s and 1860s, when it became the second largest silk producer in the world, internationally famous for black taffeta and bolting cloths for sifting flour. After 1930 the textile industry went into steady decline, and many silk companies closed their businesses. The silk industry still has an indirect influence through the buildings that remain and the companies that grew from it such as banks, property companies and machinery plants. Efforts began some years ago to draw attention to the importance of the Zurich silk industry and preserve the remaining textile archives.

Silk ribbon and ribbon weaving

Ribbon weaving was once a major industry in northwest Switzerland, and is still practised to this day in the cantons of Aargau and Solothurn. Silk ribbon weaving almost died out completely in the 1920s in the two Basel half-cantons; the last maker of passementerie laid down her home weaving loom in 1988, and the final weaving mill closed in 2004. Silk ribbon weaving was brought to the Basel region in the 16th century by emigrants fleeing religious persecution in Italy and France. Basel town council first authorised the use of multi-shaft looms in 1670, thus promoting early industrialisation. Weavers in Basel-Landschaft used this kind of loom to produce silk ribbons from home. This was done in a putting-out system for a «Bändelherren» (agent) in the town. Factories only emerged in the 19th century, firstly in the city and later in rural areas. In the 20th century, citizens of Basel-Landschaft tried to combat the decline in weaving through the use of electric looms. As a consequence, 35 communities in Basel already had electricity by 1904. In rural areas they still remember working from home, which gave many a source of income but also reflected the imbalance of power between the wealthy city and workers in the countryside. In the city, on the other hand, the silk ribbon industry is kept alive through the houses of former "Bändelherren" and through the knowledge that today's industrial development could never have taken place without silk ribbons.


Traditional costumes provide a useful insight into textile history: they reveal earlier fashion trends –, whether the cut, the material, the trimmings or the accessories. Costumes were first worn in the 18th century to reflect a growing awareness of rural regional identity and status. Not only does traditional dress vary from canton to canton in Switzerland, women‘s costumes in particular often differ within the regions of a canton, virtually all of which have festive and everyday costumes. Today, costumes can mainly be seen at traditional events and processions. Striking examples are the black Bernese costumes embellished with silver and the Engadine costume made of red wool. Most commonly seen in the canton of Zurich are the Wehntal costume, with its bright blue apron, and that of the Knonauer Amt region, the Burefeufi (named after the V-shaped apron tied round the back). When it comes to men’s traditional attire, the "Berner Mutz", an embroidered black jacket with short sleeves, is generally well known, as is the "Appenzeller Sennentracht" with yellow trousers and a silver spoon earring or the embroidered blue blouse of Central Switzerland. An overview of the different costumes is provided by the Swiss National Costume Association. The Swiss National Costume Association (SNCA) was founded in Lucerne in 1926. It now has around 18400 members in 700 groups, which are organised into 26 cantonal associations. The SNCA is a governing body and is represented in each of Switzerland’s four cultural and linguistic regions. The SNCA holds a national costume gathering at intervals of twelve years. The Eidgenössisches Trachtenfest 2010 (Traditional Costume Festival) in Schwyz played host to around 8000 people dressed in costumes from every region, with over 75’000 visitors enjoying the colourful spectacle.


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