Travels & Traditions: St. Gallen, Switzerland" - #707

BURT WOLF: St. Gallen is the most eastern province in Switzerland. It's also the most populated with over 180,000 residents, but you would never know it from traveling around the countryside. Forests, grazing cows, rolling hills that look like someone comes out every night and dusts them off. Neatness is very important in Switzerland. 

To get a sense that there are actually more people than cows you need to go into the area’s capital city. The capital city of St. Gallen, is called St. Gallen, which can be confusing but very efficient. Like New York, New York.

But St. Gallen was into efficiency for at least a thousand years before anyone heard of New York. And they are presently in the process of celebrating that history.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: It all started in 612, when a wandering Irish monk by the name of Gallus was passing through eastern Switzerland and decided that this was his kind of neighborhood. It was cold, it was barren, it was gray---it was miserable, and that was just what he was looking for. Because in those days, in order to have great accommodations in the after-life you had to have miserable accommodations in this one.

BURT WOLF: Over the years Gallus developed a substantial following, and after his death a Benedictine Abbey was founded on the spot where he died. Gallus was sainted and within two hundred years the abbey became one of the most powerful monasteries in Europe. It was the most important educational institution north of the Alps.

The room where the abbey scribes worked became one of the most famous libraries. It was built in 1758 and contains more than 150,000 books from and about the Middle Ages. The books are arranged according to different scientific fields of study. It’s still a working library for scholars studying the Middle Ages. This library is considered to be cradle of the German language. It was here that Latin was first translated and written in the German dialect. Before the St. Gallen translations, German was spoken but not written.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The environment inside the abbey might have been magnificent but the surroundings outside were still pretty rough. At 700 meters above sea level the only crops that grew well were flax and hemp which the monks used to weave linen. They also taught the local population how to weave.

BURT WOLF: During the early 1700s, the St. Gallen weavers saw how Turkish hand-embroiderers decorated the silks that were being sold in Europe, and they decided to embroider the fabrics made in St. Gallen. By the end of the 1700s, over 40,000 embroiderers were working in eastern Switzerland. And by the middle of the 1800s, the town of St. Gallen had become the world epicenter for embroidery. Which it still is.

There are three great embroidery houses in St. Gallen and each has a different approach to the art. This is Forster Rohner. Tobias Forster is the CEO.

TOBIAS FORSTER ON CAMERA: The company was founded by my grandfather in 1904. And at that time, many embroidery companies were founded in St. Gallen. And because the embroidery industry was the most important export industry of all of Switzerland. More important than watches or chocolate or what have you. So, at that time, when you wanted to get rich quickly, you had to go to St. Gallen and found an embroidery company.

Then after the First World War, business became difficult. Fashion changed. So many companies went bankrupt.

And then in the ‘30’s my father came into the business. And he thought, this is not going to happen to me again. And he thought, I have to have an instrument in order to keep embroideries in fashion all the time. And he did it, building up a very close relationship with the best designers of the world. And the best designers of the world at that time were the couture designers in Paris. 

BURT WOLF: During the 1860s, craftsmen in Switzerland developed a mechanized loom. It utilized a combination of continuously threaded needles and a shuttle containing a bobbin of thread. The shuttle was shaped like the hull of a boat. In the Swiss German language, the word for little boat is Schiffli and the mechanism became famous as the “Schiffli machine”.

When the first large embroidery machines were built in St. Gallen, these elaborate fabrics were suddenly available at a much lower price than ever before. Today about 65 percent of embroidered fabrics are produced for generally affordable items, particularly lingerie.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: About 35 percent of St. Gallen’s embroidery goes to the fashion industry for the creation of haute couture and prêt-a-porter clothing by the great designers.

BURT WOLF: But I was surprised to find out that almost all of the embroidery designs are developed not by the fashion houses that design the clothing, but by the embroidery companies. Martin Leuthold is the Creative Director of Jakob Schlaepfer Company, which is one of the most important embroidery houses in the world.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Do you go to famous designers and ask them what they want for next season?

MARTIN LEUTHOLD ON CAMERA: Very difficult to ask them what they need.

When we ask them what they want for next season, they say something nice, something beautiful, something in what …

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Very detailed.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Something nice.

MARTIN LEUTHOLD ON CAMERA: In fashion once seen something, it’s old. Fashion people they have to touch and they have to see the colors, they have to feel the fabric, and then they choose or they like it or don’t like it. We do about 2,500 designs a year. Each three months we have a new collection. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: What are some of these that are here?

MARTIN LEUTHOLD ON CAMERA: Well, they are different fabrics. This is something special, we developed. It’s a five layer silk metallic fabric, it’s just woven to gather on the selvage, and all five layers are loose, and then over print with the inkjet print and you get this kind of light feeling. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: It’s more than really embroidery; it’s the creation of different fabrics.

MARTIN LEUTHOLD ON CAMERA: Well, we look, use all materials from feathers to wood to plastic, silk screens, silk, cotton, polyester. This is the feathers on cotton organdy. Cotton organdy it’s also a very specialized fabric from St. Gallen, the last 200 years we do cotton like organdy, like silk.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Is done by hand?


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: So each of them.

MARTIN LEUTHOLD ON CAMERA: Each one is glued on by hand.

BURT WOLF OFF CAMERA: We’ve been embroidering fabric for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians and the Babylonians embroidered their robes. During the Middle Ages Ecclesiastical clothing was embroidered. And by the early 1300s successful merchants were into embroidered clothing because it was an unmistakable sign of their wealth.

BURT WOLF: One of the great inspirations for new designs are the embroidery house libraries. Bischoff Textile is the third great embroidery house in St. Gallen and it is famous for its textile library. Max Hungerbuehler is the CEO.

MAX HUNGERBUEHLER ON CAMERA: As a Chinese embroidery. I’ve personally worked with it, this by coloring up new designs. Because the color combinations are so unusual, it’s something different made in pure silk.

Here is a Japanese embroidery – very, very colorful. You see the background is red. And then at least twelve to fiteen colors are being used for the embroidery. A piece of art.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: How long would it take somebody to do just one of those flowers?

MAX HUNGERBUEHLER ON CAMERA: I would estimate it would take between two and three hours to do this with the changing of the yarns and everything. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: So, we’re looking at hundreds of hours just to make that piece.



MAX HUNGERBUEHLER ON CAMERA: At this library is an old collection of embroideries, but also of books, fashion books. Designers come here and they work with the different books that we have here. Let me just show you one. You have different designs of old dresses. Surely today a stylist or a designer will not make something like that again. But it inspires him. And he also sees how embroideries can be adapted on the different dresses. 

This is a present that they got from customers in Spain. The reason is Brischoff Textile, they was founded in 1927. And Mr. Brischoff went for his first trip to sell embroideries to Spain, and he made many friends down there, because it became quite a good market, even during those tough times. And one of the friends then gave him this as a present. This embroidery, hand embroidery, metallic embroidery. A beautiful piece.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I hope the bulls appreciate what they went through.

MAX HUNGERBUEHLER ON CAMERA: I could imagine they didn’t so much. But the public and probably the Toreador that was wearing it, he also was quite attractive to lots of women. 

BURT WOLF: St. Gallen’s thousand year history in textiles eventually led to the development of its own couture fashion house. It’s called AKRIS.

It was founded in 1922 by Alice Kriemler-Schock. Her children had grown up and gone off on their own. She re-channeled her energy into designing aprons that she sold to her friends. Eventually the demand for her work developed into a small manufacturing company. When her children entered the business it became a producer of high quality ready-to-wear for the great designers in Paris.

In 1982, Alice’s grandson Albert was brought into design their own label under the AKRIS name.

ALBERT KRIEMLER ON CAMERA: Designing with us starts always with fabrics. I can not design or sketch without having fabric in my hands. Because the fabric always gives a lot to tell you what is possible, and what is not possible. 

When I have done the fabric quality I think of a color. And then I do a sketch. I design what I want to do.

BURT WOLF: The drawing and the fabric are discussed with the tailor and developed into a three dimensional model.

ALBERT KRIEMLER ON CAMERA: She dyes a pattern and she does a first silhouette, which we put on a mannequin and then we start speaking. It has to be more narrower. It has to be more straighter. I want the shoulders larger. Less large. She goes through all these details and if we are good we need 2 or 3 fittings. If we are not so good we need 7, 8, 9 fittings. And to get the final result.

Still not right.

BURT WOLF: Albert is always mindful of St. Gallen’s history in embroidery. His signature clothes use both classic embroidery and modern fabrics. Twenty-five percent of the manufacturing process for an AKRIS garment still requires highly specialized handwork.

His designs are sold in major department stores and AKRIS shops that have been set up in cities throughout the world. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA:  In recognition of its 1,000 year history in the textile business, St.Gallen has organized a celebration, called “Schnittpunkt”. It’s a word that’s used in the textile industry, and means “cutting point” but it has a second meaning. It means “crossroads”. The spot where you choose your future.

As a part of the celebration the work of AKRIS is on display at the Textile Museum.

ALBERT KRIEMLER ON CAMERA: This is the Spring Summer collection 2006. This year’s summer collection and here I was inspired by a photo shoot of Helmut Newton of Angelica Houston that she did in 1973 for Italian Vogue. She’s wearing a nude color, very light chiffon blouse. I was inspired through all the season by this picture. And it made me develop a lot of extremely light fabrics, but also I only stayed in these nudes and beiges and whites. I felt this was right for this summer. 

Here I treated our leather the beautiful leather quality and we punched holes to make it light. And look how delicate this all works out for a leather jacket. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: So these dark spots are holes.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: It looks like its part of the pattern.

ALBERT KRIEMLER ON CAMERA: This was the piece of the collection. It was the most photographed piece of my Fall Winter collection. And once more it’s out of St. Gallen embroidery.

You see it’s a tulle embroidery with raw wool on it and also this trapeze coat is fully reversible. It was also an archive inspired pattern. But I love it. It has so much modernity on it you know.

BURT WOLF: As part of Schnittpunkt, The St. Gallen Art Museum installed an exhibition called “Lifestyle” which is a collection of works that deal with the relationship between art and fashion. The curator is Konrad Bitterli.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: What’s this piece about?

KONRAD BITTERLI ON CAMERA: This is a video installation by the South African artist, Candice Spreitz. Showing 30 Madonna imitators, or Madonna fans, singing a whole album by the famous artist, “The Immaculate Collection.”

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: What's it mean?

KONRAD BITTERLI ON CAMERA: Madonna is kind of the role model for an identity that constantly changes from the Latina to the domina, to the material girl, so you have 30 imitators who all try to get into that identity, to imitate this role model. But a the same time, they each have their own individuality that they can’t hide. 


How do I get out of here?

KONRAD BITTERLI ON CAMERA: Not for quite a while. You have to sing along for all 70 minutes.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I’ll do the best I can.



KONRAD BITTERLI ON CAMERA: This is a piece by the Geneva-based artist Sylvie Flurry. And it shows a car in a way

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: It's a real car?

KONRAD BITTERLI ON CAMERA: It’s a real car. But in a way that you don’t drive it anymore. It’s crashed obviously and it has a color that doesn’t quite fit the colors that you usually see on streets. It is a lipstick color Givenchy 601. So what it does it kind of melts two different worlds. The world of racing, of male obsession with the world of fashion, of makeup, through the color of the Givenchy makeup and lipsticks. 

BURT WOLF: Just down the street is the St. Gallen historical museum which has an exhibition called "Dresscode". The works present the idea that a dress contains a coded message.

There is an extraordinary video by Eve Sussman. It presents an imaginary vision of the people surrounding the 17th Century Spanish painter Velasquez, while he was at work. 

A video by Hussein Chalayan presents furniture that can be turned into clothing.

Jacqueline Hassink is a photographer with a special interest in the private fitting rooms used by the great designers for their most important clients. This series presents some of those rooms.

It’s difficult to be in Switzerland and not think about Swiss watches. You get the feeling that each street has a least one store selling them and the selection is rather magnificent.

While I was in St. Gallen I noticed that many of the people involved with fashion, art and technology wore watches made by a company call IWC which stands for the International Watch Company.

The company was founded by F. A. Jones, an American engineer and watchmaker who came to Switzerland with a plan to use American engineering technology and Swiss craftsmanship to produce watch parts for the American market.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Originally he wanted to manufacture his watches in the French speaking part of Switzerland near Geneva. But the French would have none of his modern American ideas and basically told him to get lost. 

But while he was getting lost in the Swiss mountains he heard about a new hydroelectric plant in eastern Switzerland that was producing low cost energy. Just what Jones needed to power his watch making equipment and so in 1868 he set up IWC.

BURT WOLF: Technical innovation has always been an essential part of the company's operation. In 1885 they introduced the first digital watch with tiny windows for the hours and minutes.

During the 1930s they turned their attention to the needs of early aviators. Pilots needed a watch that would function precisely at extreme temperatures, could withstand pressure changes, would not be affected by magnetic fields and was easy to read.

They adapted their pocket watches and introduced the Big Pilots Watch with a long strap because the watch was worn over the pilot’s flight suit.

They still produce the most advanced watches for pilots.

In 1985 they introduced the DaVinci. It was the first wristwatch with a mechanical calendar programmed for 500 years. It proved especially popular with people who had a family history of longevity.

Then they started hanging out with the scuba pioneer Jacques Cousteau. The result was a group of watches known as the Aquatimer Chronograph Cousteau Divers.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: They even make a model that is water-resistant to a depth of 2,000 meters. Though I can’t imagine what I would be doing at that depth and if I was there why I would need to know what time it is. But you never can tell. I might have a sushi date with a mermaid, and not want to be late.

BURT WOLF: The International Watch Company has an impressive history and they have certainly developed some fantastic technology. And those are certainly major reasons for their popularity in St. Gallen.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Most important they are made here in the German speaking Eastern part of Switzerland and not in the French part, where the original founder was rejected. So there! 

BURT WOLF: And on that note it’s time to see what’s cooking in St. Gallen. Clearly, its most famous contribution to gastronomy is the St. Gallen bratwurst. Until the middle of the 1800s sausages where rather course in texture, but a technical breakthrough of awesome proportions produced a sausage with a smooth and creamy texture. And soon the St. Gallen bratwurst was born.

It’s a hot dog that even dog could love.

And when in St.Gallen, the place to get one is Gemperli’s. They have their own recipe and produce over ten thousand bratwurst per week. They have the best of the wurst. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: A St. Gallen bratwurst is made from veal, pork, bacon and a secret ingredient which will not be very secret after I tell you. Fresh milk. And it’s served with a typical Eastern Switzerland roll called a Burley.

BURT WOLF: For a coffee and a traditional sweet the place to go is the Roggwiller's Café and Tea Room.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: St. Gallen has two great sweets. One is a St. Gallen Spitzen which means embroidered and it’s actually chocolate with an embroidery pattern on it – both milk and dark. And the other one is a biber which is gingerbread, marzipan, gingerbread. It’s a marzipan sandwich.

BURT WOLF: And finally there is the Scherrer chocolate shop with its handmade specialties. An obvious test of ones will power. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Ok let's get started. One of those. One of those. One of those. Two of those. Getting the knack of this huh? One of those, one of those, those, one of those, those.

BURT WOLF: And clearly my will power was not a strong as I thought it was.

For Travels & Traditions, I’m Burt Wolf.