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11 April 2018
Remember me claiming that Germany is an embroidery desert? One day, it dawned upon me that I'm living in a region with a centuries-old tradition of textile production and trade after all, so I thought there just has to be some museum of embroidery, too. And there is! As Wikipedia says, there are four embroidery museums throughout Germany and two of them here in Saxony: one in Eibenstock and the other in Plauen. Both of them focus on machine embroidery, to be sure, since Chemnitz always was an industrial centre of machine construction, but the museum in Eibenstock promised to show some history of hand embroidery as well. So one sunny saturday, I set off for a short trip to Eibenstock, a small town in the Western Ore Mountains.
Information on Hand Embroidery
The Ore Mountains, as their name implies, were a mining region. Silver ore is what made Saxony rich, but in the Eibenstock area, placer mines were being worked in the first place, but also iron and tin ore. In the 17th century, ore mining largely came to a standstill, especially due to the Thirty Years' War. As a consequence, the major part of the population fell into poverty. Also in Eibenstock, people were subject to penury and famine, and many of them paid with their lives.
Events turned, when in 1775 Clara Angermann, the bride of a forester, brought the art of tambour embroidery from a monastery in Thorn on the Vistula (today Toruń in Poland) to Eibenstock. She was teaching the local women until 1780. The initially modest trade developed over time into a thriving embroidery industry, which brought Eibenstock worldwide fame and prosperity. As a result, the town was connected to the railroad network. Apart from tambour work, Eibenstock was renowned for its sequin, spangle, bead and lace embroidery.
Sequin Embroidery & Tambour Needle
In 1829, the Hand Embroidery Machine was invented by the French Josué Heilmann. It was a machine that could imitate the appearance of hand stitches. After launching the first machine of this kind (the so called "Black Giant"), every member of a family was burning the midnight oil. Women and children were pre-threading the needles of the machine, until this work step had been mechanised as well. In 1863, the Shuttle Embroidery Machine was developed. In Eibenstock, it was introduced in 1883. In 1910 eventually, a punchcard controlled automatic machine with an associated punching and repeating machine was employed, which is occasionally in unchanged use still today.
What I found hard to believe was that Clara Angermann with her goodwill, that she undoubtedly had, was able to heave all the people of Eibenstock out of poverty to prosperity. After all, they were employed in cottage industry just like the rest of the population of the Ore Mountains, who were carving and doing bobbin lace, and they all remained direly poor. It was the merchants who made the money. And indeed, I found a quote in the museum from Friedrich Gerstäcker, a journalist from Leipzig, who wrote in 1848:
Quote from a Newspaper
In and around Eibenstock, there are actually more tambour embroiderers than lace makers, but also here the penury has already its representatives: pale, emaciated individuals, bent over the embroidery frame from dawn till dusk, striving with busy hands for a few pennies to make a living.
As you can imagine, I was rather interested in the exhibits of hand embroidery than in the machines. But I changed my mind ... When you can see the museum guide live at work at the machines, explaining in-depth all the details of the process, you're caught at once! I found myself pushing to the front of the group all the time, to watch and listen at close range, asking questions and imagining the women and men nearly 200 years ago, how they were hurrying and plodding and slaving away to make a meagre living.
Can you imagine, that when a thread was broken, the controller in front of the machine had to re-thread the needle ahead of the next stitch of the running machine?! It's unbelievable! The museum guide said, that they tried it themselves and just couldn't make it.
For me, this visit was such a great experience that I decided to return and to visit all the other museums available in the region, machines or not. Unfortunately I was so engaged in watching and listening, that I didn't manage to take photos of the machines. You can find some of them on the museum's website. But as I said: I will return!