St. Gallen Embroidery

Embroidery from Eastern Switzerland from the 16th century to the present

Textile Museum St. Gallen

Textilmuseum St. Gallen

View of the city of St. Gallen in the "Schweizer Chronik" (Swiss Chronicle) (1545) by Johannes StumpOriginal Source:

St. Gallen – The white city

Legend has it that St. Gallus, a wandering monk proselytizing in the Lake Constance area in the 6th and 7th centuries, founded the city of St. Gallen. The priests, and later St. Othmar, arranged for an abbey called St. Gallen to be founded in his honor in 719 AD, which became the spiritual center of the region. The Stiftsbibliothek (the Abbey Library of St. Gallen), whose collection includes thousands of valuable manuscripts, still enjoys great fame.

Today, St. Gallen is the thriving center of Eastern Switzerland. The University of St. Gallen is internationally renowned for its scientists.

Travelers also appreciate the beauty of the town, situated idyllically between the Alps and Lake Constance. The "Stiftskirche" (cathedral), the "Stiftsbezirk" (abbey district), and the "Stiftsbibliothek" (library) are cultural highlights, which together were recognized as a world heritage site in 1983.

Tapestry or wall hanging (fragment) (1596) by unknownOriginal Source:$

Linen period (1200-1700)

The city of St. Gallen has a long tradition of textile production and processing which began in the Middle Ages and continues to this day. During the Middle Ages, the area excelled in linen production: flax, which supplies the raw material for linen, thrives in the Lake Constance region and so business flourished as a result. Linen fabrics from St. Gallen are known for their high quality and were already exported around the world at that time.

Palls (17th century) by unknownOriginal Source:$

The linen fabric was produced and further processed in the region. This pall from the 17th century is dyed and printed.

Cushion cover (1560-70) by unknownOriginal Source:$

In addition to dyeing and printing, there were other ways to embellish the fabric: This cushion cover is made of linen and is embroidered with metal and silk. The inscription reveals that it depicts Bathsheba at her bath. She is accompanied by two handmaidens and observed by David from a Zurich defense tower.

"World Exposition" tablecloth (1850) by Hermann Schlatter (Designer)Original Source:$

Cotton period (1750-1850)

At the beginning of the 18th century there was a structural change: From 1730, the linen industry became increasingly displaced by the cotton industry. Cotton weaving and spinning mills sprung up in the region. Embroidered decoration also became more popular. Before the introduction of the embroidery machine, this was done by hand, as demonstrated by this artistically crafted blanket, which was made for the first World Expo which took place in London in 1851.

Collar (unfinished) (1850 - 1860) by unknownOriginal Source:$

Work in progress: The embroidery is marked out and partially started. The collar is adorned with oval medallions with ribbon and leaf motifs, interspersed with small four-leaf designs in a geometric arrangement and pendants consisting of small leaves.

Design drawing of the hand embroidery machine developed by Josua Heilmann (1828/29) by Josua HeilmannOriginal Source:

Innovation—Technological Progress and Social Change

The Industrial Revolution also impacted on the Swiss textile industry: In 1828/29, Alsace-born Joshua Heilmann (1796–1848) succeeded in developing the first hand embroidery machine, amongst other inventions. The machine was able to embroider using more than 300 needles simultaneously, and was thus able to repeatedly transfer the desired pattern onto the fabric. Where previously women embroidered by hand, the machine was now operated by men, who produced the fine embroidery en masse. Women did the legwork, such as the laborious and time-consuming threading.

Hand embroidery machine (1873)Textile Museum St. Gallen

F.E. Rittmeyer and F.A. Vogler from St. Gallen improved on the hand embroidery machine developed by Joshua Heilmann and got it ready for series production. The machines were manufactured by companies including Saurer in Arbon.

The invention of the embroidery machine revolutionized the textile industry and enabled the European embroidery industry to triumph in Saxon, and in the St. Gallen region in particular. More than 20,000 machines of this type were built for St. Gallen embroidery alone.

Strap with galloons and blueprint (1900-1933) by Labhard & CoTextile Museum St. Gallen

Inspiration - Historical lace

Technological innovation and high quality are important success factors for the textile industry of Eastern Switzerland. This also applies to the design of the textile treasures. Only those who are able to continuously produce new designs can survive in the volatile fashion industry. Sources of inspiration include historical handcrafted lace. These are purposefully collected by textile producers and made available to designers as a template. The St. Gallen Textile Museum, which was opened in 1886, also has a collection that serves to inspire and train textile designers. To this day, the Textile Museum's lace remains one of the highlights of the collection.

Point de Venise (1680) by unknownTextile Museum St. Gallen

Historical templates such as this Point de Venise lace from the 17th century are imitated so well by machine that they are hardly distinguishable from the handcrafted items.

NeedlepointTextile Museum St. Gallen


Parts of a border at various stages of completion (1872-1882) by unknownTextile Museum St. Gallen

Work in Progress: Needlepoint

"Point de Venise" needlepoint with relief (1675-90) by unknownTextile Museum St. Gallen

Point de Venise
Needlepoint with relief
Diese wunderscönen Borten werden für Krägen, Manschetten und ähnliches verwendet.

Bobbin workTextile Museum St. Gallen

Work in Progress: Bobbin lace

Bobbin laceTextile Museum St. Gallen

Work in Progress: Bobbin lace

Bobbin laces and needlepoints (1580-1630) by unknownTextile Museum St. Gallen

Bobbin laces

Lace edging with needlepoint by unknownTextile Museum St. Gallen

Lace edging with needlepoint 1710-20

Sample book (end of 19th / beginning of 20th century) by Grauer-Frey (?)Textile Museum St. Gallen

In addition to historical textiles, sample books also serve as a source of inspiration. These heavy tomes were a compilation of selected textiles, preferably from in-house production, but also from competitors' ranges. They served as templates for new designs for subsequent generations of designers.

Ball gown (ca. 1860) by House of WorthTextile Museum St. Gallen

Historical costumes are also collected, such as this ball gown made with Alençon needlepoint, which is said to have belonged to Eugénie de Montijo (1826–1920), the wife of Napoleon III. She was Empress of the French from 1853 through to 1870 and was the last monarch of France.

Galon and drawing of a model (1920-29) by Fritz RauTextile Museum St. Gallen

St. Gallen lace

Only semi-finished goods are made in Eastern Switzerland, i.e. fabrics, motifs, borders etc., which couturiers use to design their eye-catching gowns and accessories. The relationships between St. Gallen textile manufacturers and the Paris fashion scene have always been close. Well-known designers have always favored St. Gallen lace, also known as etching embroidery or Guipure.

Etching embroideryTextile Museum St. Gallen

Machine-made etching embroidery perfectly imitating historical lace.

Bischoff Embroideries for Oscar de la Renta (2015) by Bischoff TextilTextile Museum St. Gallen

Bischoff Textil AG
From sketch to runway – embroideries for Oscar de la Renta

(c) Bischoff Textil, 4:20 min

Etching embroideryTextile Museum St. Gallen

Fashion photography (1924) by Paul Géniaux, photographerOriginal Source:$

Samples of fabric and photos of the corresponding designs are held in the archives of the former textile manufacturers.

Fashion photography (1911)Textile Museum St. Gallen

The prestigious embroidery produced in St. Gallen during the pre-WWI era was particularly popular. Society ladies did not pass up the opportunity to show off their elaborate costumes.

St. Gallen embroideryTextile Museum St. Gallen

Dress made with Guipure or etching embroidery (detail) (20th century)Textile Museum St. Gallen

Although the golden years of embroidery were over, elaborate fabrics were still well-loved in twentieth-century fashion.

Dresses made of St. Gallen emboideryTextile Museum St. Gallen

Cocktail dress (1963-1967) by Union AG, St.GallenOriginal Source:$

St. Gallen embroidery is not confined to Guipure lace. In the 1950s, Christian Dior's new style, with its attached corsages and swinging skirts, opened up new possibilities.

Image missing

Many celebrities appreciate the beauty of St. Gallen embroidery: In fact, Michelle Obama wore a dress by designer Isabel Toledo for her husband's inauguration ceremony in 2009.

Credits: Story

Textilmuseum St.Gallen

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
We Wear Culture
The stories behind what we wear
View theme
Google apps