An Exhibition in the Textile Museum St Gallen, 26.3.-30.12.2011


Ursula Karbacher
Textile Museum St Gallen and ICOM Costume Committee member


The region of St Gallen has a longstanding history in the field of textiles. Over the 800 years of this textile history many changes occurred, however one key goal was always pursued: that of maintaining quality, innovation and vision. St Gallen became the world’s leading city of embroidery around the mid-19th century. Thanks to its outstanding quality, St Gallen embroidery was highly sought-after. As embroidery grew into a major industry, the need for a place in which textile design and crafts could be exhibited, taught and conserved was increasingly felt. The Business Directorate of the Chamber of Commerce of the cantons of St Gallen, Appenzell Ausserrhoden and Appenzell Innerrhoden undertook to construct the building which became the St Gallen Textile Museum in 1886. Since then this lively tradition is continued at the St Gallen Textile Museum and Library.

In the landmark exhibition “St Gall – the Story of Lace” the Textile Museum explained how the exceptional historical lace collection held by the Museum has provided the inspiration for the successful machine-made interpretations by the St Gallen embroiderers and designers and their pioneering innovations.

Some five hundred items were on display, thoughtfully picked out from among several thousand handmade lace pieces gathered by collectors as prominent as Leopold Iklé, John Jacoby, Carolina Maraini-Sommaruga or Charlotte Bing-Hübner.

A unique selection of hundreds of samples of eastern Swiss chemical lace tells the story from the 19th century to the future.

The exhibition enabled visitors to plunge into five centuries of workmanship



Needle and bobbin lace may be considered an invention of the Renaissance. The two lace production centres of Venice and Flanders ranked among the most prosperous cities and regions of Europe.

The Renaissance led on to the Baroque era. Lace was then a trendsetter in fashions. Bobbin lace became a highly refined art in Flanders. The epitome of Baroque lace is “Gros Point de Venise”, which originated in Venice and is characterized by high relief. The sumptuous Baroque lace evolved into Rosaline and Coraline point lace. The French nobility ruined itself with imports of Venetian and Flemish lace. Colbert, the Minister of Finances of Louis XIV promoted the State-controlled production of lace: the “Point de France”.  The revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 and subsequent expulsion of the Protestants (Huguenots) dealt a severe blow to the French textile industry. In the field of lace, the southern Low Countries profited particularly with their production of bobbin lace.



After Louis XIV’s death in 1715, Philip of Orléans ruled as Regent until Louis XV came of age. The Regency marked the transition from Baroque to Rococo. Until the middle of the 18th century lace was produced in distinctive regional styles. The rich lace patterns of scrolls and garlands stand out freely from the background.

Louis XVI acceded to the throne in 1774. Under his reign Rococo gave way to Classicism. Following the French Revolution France lost its pre-eminence in fashion. Lace fell almost completely out of use in dress.



The stylistic change which took place under Napoleon I was called “Empire”. Napoleon reintroduced lace to the court. Men only wore it on official occasions. Between 1800 and 1810, the technique of mechanically manufactured tulle was developed in England. Bobbin lace and needle work could be applied to this fabric. 

During the Biedermeier period lace ornaments were again in fashion. Blondes were particularly favoured. The wide skirt of the crinoline, in vogue from 1850 to 1870, supported lavish lace trimmings and long stoles. Mauve (pale purple) was the first synthetic colour to be invented in 1856 and remained in fashion until the end of the 19th century.

With Historicism, lace designs also turned to historic forerunners for inspiration, such as the most famous Baroque lace, Gros Point de Venise. Even the patterns created in Irish crocheted lace were reminiscent of Baroque needle lace. Until the turn of the century lace remained very much in fashion. At that time both, handmade lace and lace finished by machine were in great demand.



The St Gallen chemical lace

Lace was all the fashion in the second half of the 19th century and this had prompted the St Gallen embroiderers to make lace-like embroidery using the technique of cut-out embroidery from the 1870s. At the same time, intense research was carried out on the possible ways of producing embroidered lace. 1881/82 Charles Wetter invented the “burnt-out” technique: Wetter took silk as ground material for the embroidery and used cotton thread to embroider. With caustic soda he burned out the silk and the cotton embroidery remained. Wetter put the first chemical lace on the market in 1883.

The comprehensive exhibition “St Gallen – The Story of Lace”, which was based on the Museum’s own collection, delighted visitors from all over Europe, thereby highlighting the enormous significance of lace for the east Swiss region of St. Gallen.


SG-69© Photos Tobias Siebrecht and Jürg Zürcher
© Text and Objects Textile Museum St Gallen
Translation Catherine Fischer Schleiss, Elizabeth Fischer