St Gallen : some history
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More than most other Swiss cities, St Gallen’s owes its existence to the religious community which remains at its core. In around 612, the Irish monk Gallus – a follower of Columba – was travelling south from the Bodensee into the valley forests. Depending on who you speak to, legend has it that he either fell over, or stumbled into a briar patch, or spoke to a bear who understood what he was saying; whichever, Gallus felt he had received a sign from God, and so chose that very spot to build his hermitage. In the eighth century, a follower of Gallus named Otmar established a monastic community around Gallus’s cell, and founded a school of scribes and translators, which soon became famous throughout. In the 830s, Abbot Gozbert founded the great library, and St Gallen’s reputation as a centre of culture and learning grew, while a town flourished around it. By the thirteenth century, St Gallen had become an important market town and it’s reputation as a centre of learning was being ousted by its reputation as a producer and exporter of exceptionally high-quality linen. By the end of the Middle Ages, St Gallen was the only Swiss town to have trade representatives resident in foreign cities, and was linked by stagecoach to centres of textile processing in Nuremberg and Lyon.

In 1529, Joachim von Watt – known as Vadian – introduced the Reformation to St Gallen, sparking iconoclastic riots which forced the monks temporarily to flee the city. However, the abbey survived as a walled, independent Catholic enclave within the Protestant city. Early in the eighteenth century, cotton began to outsell linen around Europe, and St Gallen’s weavers rapidly switched production techniques. Some decades later, when hand-embroidery became popular, the weavers embraced this too, and by 1790, some 40,000 women were working from home to embroider cotton and muslin for export. Early in the nineteenth century, St Gallen hand-embroidered cotton was being exported to the young United States. Meanwhile, the creation of Napoleon’s Helvetic Republic in 1798 stripped the sovereign abbey, the city and the region of real power – when St Gallen joined the Swiss Confederation in 1803 as a new, Protestant canton, one of its first actions was to dissolve the abbey.

The invention of embroidery machines in the 1820s and 1830s brought a golden age to St Gallen. A few decades later, the region boasted some 100,000 machines, with production still centred in the home. By 1913, embroidery was Switzerland’s largest export industry, with St Gallen accounting for around half of the entire world production of textiles. These days, that figure is down to just 0.5 percent, but Swiss embroidery remains a highly valued, luxury commodity and production continues in the hands of small, highly specialized companies that supply designs and finished products to haute couture fashion houses: Lacoste’s famous crocodile logo, for instance, is Swiss embroidered. St Gallen’s now almost entirely computerized embroidery industry still relies on some two thousand local women working from home on fine hand-sewn detailing impossible to achieve by machine.

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