Inside the textile town of Switzerland
St Gallen, in eastern Switzerland, has a long history of fabrics, lace and embroidery. Kalpana Sunder goes on a heritage trail and spins a yarn
St Gallen was founded by a wandering Irish monk called Gallus, looks like a page out of an illustrated Grimm's fairy tale, with its Old Town lined by half-timbered houses with turrets and elaborate bay windows (called oriels). Most tourists come here to visit the Rococo-styled Abbey library, with its priceless collection of books and hand-written manuscripts dating back to the 8th century; the library is part of the UNESCO Abbey district. But there is more to the town than just its famous monastery and heritage buildings. Located in a pastoral valley between Lake Constance and the rolling hills of Appenzell, this town has a surprising connection to the catwalks of high fashion.
St Gallen used to be a major textile centre known for its high-quality linen, cotton weaving and intricate lace and embroidery. The town was nicknamed 'White City' because the linen fabric used to be spread on the ground for miles to bleach in the sun. In the beginning of the 20th century, the town's embroidery accounted for over 50 per cent of the world's production at the time. The rich textile merchants poured their wealth into building flamboyant Art Nouveau mansions for themselves, with beautiful bay windows and frescoes. Whilst St Gallen embroidery is no longer produced in the same quantity as in its heyday, its lace and fabric are still sourced by many haute couture brands.
Lace has always been a part of haute couture. Famous design brands work with lace from St Gallen and celebrities - from Amal Clooney to Madonna - have been spotted wearing lace from here. What's more, former US First Lady Michelle Obama wore St Gallen woollen embroidery on her dress to her husband's inauguration ceremony.
When the town was founded, the monks grew the only crops that could thrive in this altitude (flax and hemp) and started weaving linen. In the 1700s, the weavers in St Gallen were inspired by how Turkish women embroidered silks and cultivated the craft; by the end of 1700, the town had nearly 40,000 embroiderers, and became a thriving centre. The craft would be passed on from generation to generation: girls would learn from their mothers. and every marriage trousseau would include this delicate embroidery and lace work.
In the 1860s, Swiss craftsmen invented a loom with a shuttle that resembled the hull of a boat - it was called the Schiffli machine. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, hand embroidery machines were built, which used more than 300 needles at the same time. But handcrafted lace still continued to be templates for inspiration.
In St Gallen, the history of the textile industry whispers from every corner. Strolling through the town, we discover that there is a 'Textile Trail' leading to beautiful Art Deco houses that used to have an association with the textile industry. Some of these houses have morphed into boutique hotels or restaurants. The spectacular Art Nouveau 'Oceanic' building in the centre of town has, on its façade, a portrayal of 'spinning the golden thread of mankind'. Even one of the town's nicest hotels, Einstein, was a former textile factory; today, it's furnished with fine silk curtains, and its beds are decorated with St Gallen lace - as a homage to the textile industry. At the tourist information centre, the desk is a unique piece made from patterned tiles, derived from an embroidery pattern and the Abbey museum has linen book covers, instead of leather!
At the Textile Museum in the heart of the town, in the Palazzo Rosso that opened in 1886, one gets a glimpse into the history of textiles, and embroidery which made the city famous. Even the entrance ticket is a scrap of beautiful fabric. "This museum is a source of inspiration for many budding designers and fashionistas," explains my guide. The vast museum, with over 30,000 objects, showcases handmade lace, decorated Renaissance gowns, antique fabrics from around the world, historical costumes like the gown that belonged to Napoleon III's wife Eugenie, and took a year and a half to make. It also has a special section devoted to modern haute-couture design. Don't forget to peek into its extensive library of over 2,000 books, featuring textile samples from embroiderers of the past.
Today, there are several family-run businesses that make clothes and designs for their well-known clientele. Akris is one of them: they make clothes for celebrities like Adele and Cameron Diaz. Bischoff provides embroidery patterns to brands like Yves Saint Laurent and Givenchy.
We discover that this textile town is full of rustic restaurants, housed in timbered historic buildings, boasting low ceilings. Stickerei is an old embroidery factory that was converted into a residential block during the Great Depression; now it's a restaurant that serves homemade burgers. We have dinner at Schlosssli, a restaurant that has an old-world ambience: vintage armoires, frescoes on ceilings, etc. The owner is passionate about local produce, and offers us a unique menu with long-forgotten foods like blue St Gallen potatoes, cornmeal and Toggenburg goat's cream cheese.
On our last evening in the city, we head to the west of the city - an area called Bleicheli, where many of St Gallen's historic textile factories used to be located. The name comes from the German word "bleichen", or bleach, as fabrics would be left out in the sun here to bleach. One of the squares in this modern district was chosen for a zany art installation project, by artist Pipilotti Rist and architect Carlos Martínez: the ground was laid with a faux carpet made of red rubber polymer; there are curvaceous sofas and couches, and overhead is strung giant balloon-like lights. Today, the Stadtlounge (as it's called) is a living room for the locals: they read books or chat with friends, and, at times, even watch a performance. I muse on the fact that even this vibrant public space of today has a connection to its rich textile heritage.