The rise and fall of St Gallen textiles

The rise and fall of St Gallen textiles


Fine fabrics and embroidery, on display
at the textile museum in St. Gallen. A traditional product from the region and for many years the pride
and joy of Max Hungerbühler. He worked in the textile sector
for almost 40 years, including as CEO
and patron of Bischoff Textil. Swiss jobs were always
important to him. In his heyday he had
300 employees in St. Gallen and only ten abroad –
until the late 1990s. Switzerland became very
expensive for textiles in general. Today, production in
Switzerland is only possible with a niche
product, a speciality. If embroidered or printed
fabrics are made that can be made anywhere,
then it’s no longer possible to produce them here. What remains in St. Gallen
is the history. Cotton fabrics have been embellished with
embroidery here since the 18th century. First by hand,
100 years later by machines. The pinnacle of St. Gallen’s
embroidery era was in 1912. It was known around the world. Two out of three employees
in the city made their living from embroidery back then. The First World War destroyed everything. The economic crisis in the USA
affected exports. By 1950 the industry had recovered, but another lean period
followed. Since the millennium the industry has been fighting
production costs and pressure on wages. Some are seeking out niches,
developing high-tech textiles. High-tech embroidery
and special catwalk designs are clearly still successful
in St. Gallen. Over 200 people work for Forster Rohner
in St. Gallen. The machines rattle
around the clock. This is where fabrics are
developed and produced for Akris, Louis Vuitton,
Gucci and Prada. We have a very strong focus
on design and innovation. Everything that is not new
or totally fascinating has no place in the market,
especially when the price is so high. That’s why we have to work together
to constantly create something new, exciting, varied
and fascinating. The industrial production
of beautiful fabrics doesn’t offer Max Hungerbühler
any big opportunities. The type of clothing today
is universal, simple, jeans and a T-shirt,
preferably already with holes in it. That makes it harder to use
fine fabrics such as embroidery. The change in
St. Gallen’s textile industry is part of a global trend, explains the director of
the Swiss Textile Association. A change is taking place
in the industry, away from the textile factory,
as we know it, and towards a centre of excellence. This may involve research
or the development of new fibres, new processing methods. We want to make more efforts
to show tourists that the textile industry still has
a future in St. Gallen. It’s a fact that
we look back to the past a lot to see what happened
when people started bleaching, etc. But Empa, which tests materials,
or other companies, and which deal with technical
textiles … This is extremely forward-looking. We still have plenty of
potential here in future to market them better
and to react better too. Apart from the history,
there’s not much left of the embroidery
and its heyday that brought wealth to
the entire region. But St. Gallen is still a major player on the
world market because some companies’ competencies and
innovation are among the most sought-after.

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