The Bauhaus Women’s Class

The weaving workshop was more than just a dumping ground for women after their foundation course.

By Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau

Untitled (Elsa Franke and an unknown person, smoking in the Bauhaus Dessau) (undated (1929/1931)) by unknownBauhaus Dessau Foundation

Absolute equality?

The Bauhaus did not just want to revolutionise building; it wanted to be ahead of its time in every area. And that included the way women were treated. As early as in the founding manifesto there was the hopeful note, “Any respectable person will be accepted, regardless of age or gender”. Walter Gropius wrote in his notes, “Absolute equality, but also absolutely equal obligations”.

Lounge Chair, Model no. B35 and Stool, Model no. B37 Lounge Chair, Model no. B35 and Stool, Model no. B37 (Designed 1928–29, made c. 1930–35) by Marcel BreuerThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

But unlike his ideas about new building and modern design, which soon took concrete shape in the workshops and on the building sites, Gropius’ idea of equality remained purely theory.

In the cost estimate for the Bauhaus Gropius had anticipated “50 ladies, 100 gentlemen”. What he did not reckon with was that women would flood to the Bauhaus in such numbers that there were soon as many women as men studying there.

Ghost of a Genius (1922) by Paul KleeNational Galleries Scotland: Modern

At that time women were not thought to be capable of much, especially by the masters at the Bauhaus. Johannes Itten, for instance, assumed, as was normal for the time, that women were only capable of thinking in two dimensions. Paul Klee was certain that genius is masculine. And Gropius was afraid that all these women would force his Bauhaus in an ‘artsy-craftsy’ direction.

Old Weimar (1919) by Eberhard SchrammenBauhaus Dessau Foundation

When during those days the student Gunta Stölzl asked for a class for women to be set up, she was charging in through an open door. The idea was born in the Weimar Christmas market, where the women of the Bauhaus were selling dolls, wooden games and decorations they had made themselves.

Untitled (Woman at a table) (undated (ca. 1942)) by Reinhold RossigBauhaus Dessau Foundation

Women’s classes existed at the time at many academies and arts and crafts schools as a reaction to the flood of women students. But the women’s class at the Bauhaus was initiated by the women themselves.

Ruth Hollos on loom in self-woven dress (1931/32) by Erich Consemüller (Photo)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

To begin with, all kinds of handcraft were done there, from sewing and knotting to embroidery, crocheting and macramé. When the women students discovered a room in the school with looms, where girls from the city were taught embroidery ...

... not only the appliances but also the teacher, Helena Börner, as workshop head, were shortly afterwards integrated into the Bauhaus. The women’s class became the workshop for weaving.

Walter Gropius in front of his home in Dessau (1926/27) by unknownBauhaus Dessau Foundation

For Gropius, this was more than just a workshop: it was the solution to his “women problem”. In September 1920 Gropius then put forward the proposal in the Masters’ Council for “strict separation immediately at matriculation, especially for the female sex who by their number are too heavily represented.”

The women who made it then to the Bauhaus were packed off to the weaving workshop straight after the foundation course. All other workshops, from wood to metal, were open only to male students. There was absolutely no question of women being admitted to study architecture.

Untitled (Georg Muche with swimming trunks and boater on the shore of the Elbe) (1925-05-21) by Irene Angela Bayer (née Hecht)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

As a result, a lot of women landed in the weaving workshop who did not want to be there at all. But not only that caused frustration. The co-opted teacher Helena Borner had very little idea about weaving. And the painter Georg Muche, who was master of form from 1921, swore never to take a thread in his hand: He did not want to be associated with the feminine aura of weaving!

Ruth Hollos at the loom in the Bauhaus Weimar (1925) by unknownBauhaus Dessau Foundation

“Everything technical, the way the loom worked, the possibilities of intersecting warp and weft, the way threads are fed in, we could only find all this out ourselves by trial and error. It caused a lot of head scratching for us poor autodidacts, and many a tear was shed,” wrote Gunta Stölzl.

Nonetheless, the women students Stölzl and Benita Otte went on to take courses at the technical school in Krefeld and passed their skills on to their fellow students.

The Sublime Side (Bauhaus postcard no. 4 for the Bauhaus exhibition of 1923) (1923) by Paul KleeBauhaus Dessau Foundation

Carpet as a work of art

Muche encouraged his students to experiment and let them work in a playful manner. “Time was no object,” wrote Gunta Stölzl; “The attempt to live and shape the New was the only matter of urgency.” It was rather others who gave a formal impetus – Itten, Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, in whose classes colours and forms were joined together in a quite special aesthetic.

Design for a carpet (1924) by Corona (Korona) KrauseBauhaus Dessau Foundation

The Bauhaus women countered the art nouveau-period narrative tapestry with two-dimensionally constructed designs in keeping with a new abstract art.

Until 1923, mainly single pieces were made, and these were presented to great acclaim at the Bauhauswoche exhibition – “All previous storms and struggles were forgotten in the intoxication of joy” (Stölzl). In the following year the weaving workshop registered the rights to around 900 weaving patterns.

Untitled (Fabric sample) by Gertrud Arndt (née Hantschk)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

To make the Bauhaus better known, pieces of work were at first shown at exhibitions and trade fairs without the makers’ names being displayed. A few women weavers objected to this and wanted to be named. They had serious professional intentions and had an eye on their careers. This “rebelliousness” by the weavers was not to be the last.

Untitled (Bauhaus building, Dessau, architect Walter Gropius, view from the west with workshop wing) (1931/1932) by unknownBauhaus Dessau Foundation

Uprising of the weavers

When the Bauhaus moved to Dessau in 1925, the looms and the teacher, Helena Börner, stayed in Weimar. In the new school building the weaving workshop had a large, well-lit studio on the first floor as well as new looms and its own dyeing studio. But Muche lacked the knowledge to do anything with the newly-bought equipment, which led to the women students questioning everything about his teaching and demanding Gunta Stölzl as their teacher. This revolutionary behaviour by the weavers led to unrest throughout the school and was even called a “new storm assault” on the masters.

The masters of the Bauhaus (after 1926) by unknownBauhaus Dessau Foundation

It worked. Stölzl got a contract as ‘teacher of the weaving workshop’ in Dessau. Muche stayed as master of form until 1927, and after that Stölzl (second from right in this picture) was the head of the textile workshop as a ‘young master’. In many respects, and especially in contrast to the normal way things were done at the time, it was something completely new. For the first time a management position had been awarded despite the reservations of the Director and the masters.

But above all – for the first time, a woman filled a senior position at the Bauhaus. Yet she was not treated equally. Stölzl was paid less than the male masters and had no right to a pension.

Work plan for the weaving (1925) by Bauhaus DessauBauhaus Dessau Foundation

Stölzl subdivided the workshop into a teaching and a production workshop and streamlined the training programme.

You need the Bauhaus (1928) by Margaretha (Grete) ReichardtBauhaus Dessau Foundation

Time pressure and piecework

Like all the Bauhaus workshops, the weaving workshop had to show turnover and work contracts for industry. The pressure on the weavers grew. There was hardly any more time for creative experimenting, for instance with the newly-acquired Jacquard loom. In her collage ‘sie brauchen das bauhaus’ (they need the bauhaus) Margaretha Reichardt is critical of this time pressure.

Next to a selection of her fabric patterns her comment, “schooling at the factory belt” and “faster, faster”. An “eager master weaver” points at the constantly ticking clock.

In the lower part of the collage Reichardt uses a Bauhaus advertisement from 1928: “you need modern quality work. the bauhaus takes it on.”

Over a list of weaving contract orders for May to September 1928 Reichardt asks, “Check for yourself – is there any time left over then for experimental work?”

A new revolution was in the making.

Hannes Meyer while inspecting the building site for the ADGB Trade Union School in Bernau (1928) by Hermann BunzelBauhaus Dessau Foundation

Woven fabric that serves

Studying became easier for women under the new Bauhaus Director Hannes Meyer. From 1928 they were allowed to choose their own workshops and were also admitted to study architecture. Meyer expected more technically innovative functional fabrics from the weaving workshop. The weavers had already been working on these, since after all modern architecture and functional furniture demanded new textiles: large glass areas needed non-sensitive light and sight blocking and tubular steel furniture needed robust upholstery fabrics.

Metallic yarn (Material sample from Benita Koch-Otte's class at Burg Giebichenstein Halle) (undated (1920/1929)) by Corona (Korona) KrauseBauhaus Dessau Foundation

Under Meyer, however, the emphasis was on the continuing technical development of textiles and Gunta Stölzl dedicated herself passionately to the woven fabric as a “serving object that adapts and integrates”.

New materials such as iron thread, ‘viskaband’, cellophane and cellulose filament were tried out. The idea was to develop resilient, cheap fabrics that also satisfied high design demands.

miniature weaving (ca. 1929) by Margaretha (Grete) ReichardtBauhaus Dessau Foundation

On the other hand, Meyer had very little time for individual single works. In his view they were elitist and artsy-craftsy, and after he was sacked in 1930 he even ridiculed the carpets as “the psychological complexes of young girls”.

Sample specimen of striped fabrics (1925) by Gertrud Arndt (née Hantschk)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

Floor coverings instead of carpets was the new credo. The workshop became more productive and profitable. Production nearly doubled, as did the number of staff, which rose to 20.

Untitled (Sample specimen for the Polytex collection) (ca. 1930) by Bauhaus Dessau, weaving workshopBauhaus Dessau Foundation

In 1930 the Bauhaus started working in cooperation with the Berlin textiles company Polytex, for which it from then on designed fabrics and patters.

o. T. (Bettdecke) by Gunta StoelzlBauhaus Dessau Foundation

Towards the end of the 1930s Stölzl found herself being the target of various intrigues, initiated by people including her critic, Reichardt.

In 1931 she resigned and left for Switzerland.

Otti Berger on the balcony of Preller House (undated) by Gertrud Arndt (née Hantschk)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

First Anni Albers took over as head of the weaving workshop, then Otti Berger (pictured here). Later, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – Director of the Bauhaus from 1930 – brought in the Berlin native Lilly Reich to take on the job. She was a successful interior designer with no technical knowledge of weaving, and from then on laid the emphasis on textile printing.

Reich was little loved by the students. In 1932 the workshop had only 3 students left. The following year the Bauhaus was closed down.

Untitled (photograph of textile, heavy curtain fabric made from rayon and cotton) (1933) by Albert HennigBauhaus Dessau Foundation

What remains?

The Bauhaus weaving workshop was one of the school’s largest and most successful workshops and produced some great artistic personalities, such as Anni Albers, to whom the New York Museum of Modern Art devoted a solo exhibition in 1949. Her abstract creations are still inspiring the designers.

Untitled (Sketch Woman with child on tubular steel chair) (undated (1948/1959)) by Reinhold RossigBauhaus Dessau Foundation

The weaving workshop was also an early testing ground for emancipation. After all, it was the students themselves who established it and their commitment that gave it its character. Even the compatibility of family and career was tried out here: Gunta Stölzl, for example, brought her daughter, born in 1929, to work with her.

Mask photograph No. 6 (ca. 1930) by Gertrud Arndt (née Hantschk)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

Even if equality was to remain a utopia in society for a long time to come, the Bauhaus women had taken the ideal deeply to heart and were able to pursue approaches that were for their time very advanced. We can see this, for instance, in the marriage contract between Gertrud Arndt (pictured here) and her husband Alfred.

Untitled (Naked woman with infant and reclining man) (1923) by Alfred ArndtBauhaus Dessau Foundation

In it, the couple promise each other as well as regular early morning exercise and plenty of travel: “complete equality of the woman beside the man”.

Read more about studying at the Bauhaus
Credits: Story

Text / Concept / Realisation: Cornelia Jeske

Editing: Astrid Alexander, Cornelia Jeske

Translation: Catherine Hales, Stephan Schmidt

© Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau

Credits: All media
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