Interview with
Martha Monstein
Interview with Martha Monstein

Martha Monstein, you head up the Thurgau Cultural Office and represent the supporting partners of TaDA – Textile and Design Alliance on the Board of Trustees. How and why did this project come into being and what were the most important steps in this respect?

The textile industry and its related history have marked the society and landscape of eastern Switzerland for centuries. Its textile history reflects the region’s impressive adaptability and capacity for innovation, in economic, social and political terms. In the media today and in people’s everyday lives, awareness and knowledge of this eventful history are fragmentary. All too little attention is paid to what should be a key component of the region’s identity-building and self-awareness.
The cultural offices for the cantons of Appenzell Ausserrhoden, St.Gallen and Thurgau see real potential in this past – also as a source of inspiration – for both culture and the creative industry. A workshop with broad participation of actors from culture, the textile industry, history and society provided an opportunity to explore the cultural potential of the “Textile” theme. Afterwards, we held a two-stage competition. The aim was to identify ideas for a broad-based, multi-year programme that would help inspire a creative dialogue on the theme of “Textiles in Eastern Switzerland”. After the project called “TaDA – Textile and Design Alliance” from Heller Enterprises was chosen, the company was tasked with developing a feasibility study to test the possible implementation of the basic idea and concept and lay the foundations for concrete project planning. But then we decided to focus on a TaDA subproject independently, namely the residency programme, which you are now heading and implementing together with partner firms.

This coal-fired oven heats up the ironing ladies' irons. Photography: Jürg Zürcher, St.Gallen

Why did TaDA only come into being now – and not 10 years ago?

As we began in 2016 to explore the theme in greater depth, this led to renewed interest in the textile industry and its cultural heritage. Various actors became involved with this multi-layered subject. For example, there were artistic productions on the topic in literature, theatre and music, accompanied by intensive academic analysis. The Textile Museum and the Saurer Museum in Arbon as well as cultural tourist attractions of “Textilland Ostschweiz” found and continue to find an audience. In addition, the very few embroiders are generating greater interest and specialised firms are giving higher priority to young talent. What is more, the joint exhibition “iigfädlet – Ostschweizer Texttilgeschichten” of 2017 featuring eight museums in the cantons of Appenzell Ausserrhoden and St.Gallen attracted a large audience, showing that people are still interested in textiles. We felt the time was ripe, so we seized the opportunity.

It is not common for three cantons to jointly design and implement a project. How did this close cooperation come about?

The three cantonal cultural offices already had good cooperation experiences with the project “kklick - Kulturvermittlung Ostschweiz”, which was constructive, goal-oriented, uncomplicated and passionate. We also enjoyed support on the political level. Everyone recognised that cooperation would enable us to vastly expand our sphere of activity and leverage synergies. The “Textile” theme concerns all three cantons, and based on our positive experience with previous cooperation, we decided to tackle this theme jointly. With TaDA as well, we were able to count once again on positive support, insofar as the relevant bodies allocated the necessary funding.

Who does TaDA primarily target? Who is supposed to benefit from the Textile and Design Alliance?

The TaDA programme is aimed at creative artists, people from the cultural industry, our many partners from the textile industry and of course the public at large and experts. During the residencies, activities with great audience appeal will be organised, and a public event called “TaDA Spinnerei” is designed to reach both specialists and the general public.

TaDA is a pilot programme due to run until March 2023. What are the sponsorship’s visions in this respect: What is supposed to happen in the meantime to ensure the project’s success?

We don’t know exactly how far we can come in this relatively short timeframe, but we shall do our utmost to achieve part of our visions. That would already be amazing!

Our visions are as follows:

  • Cooperation between culture and textiles pays off for both sides. At best, TaDA will act as a breeding ground for other exciting initiatives
  • The partner network grows
  • We succeed in providing positive stimuli for the identity of eastern Switzerland
  • Among the public, we create visibility and awareness for the textile industry’s cultural heritage and capacity for innovation;
  • The TaDA programme with the “TaDA Spinnerei” receives broad regional, national and international exposure and reaches larger circles.

You referred to the partner network. TaDA works with partners from the eastern Swiss textile industry. Is it really the task of cultural promotion to support these partners?

We are very fortunate that so many textile companies have come on board as TaDA partners. However, no funding goes to the partner firms. On the contrary, they agree to provide us with staff resources and know-how for the programme and residents. This really benefits the creative artists; the close relationship to industry is a special feature of this programme and is surely responsible for the high number of applications received.

Precisely! 176 applications were submitted for the first competition. Were you expecting such a high number? You represent the three cantons on the Board of Trustees and sit on the jury – how do you feel about this first round?

We were all quite surprised, even overwhelmed by the high number of applications from all over the world. Here, Marianne, I would like to praise your efforts, because your efficient networking was the reason why the competition received good media coverage both here and worldwide.

The fact that the jury was composed of both textile specialists and creative artists allowed a differentiated approach to the applications. This in turn led to stimulating, interesting discussions on the projects submitted.

What characterises the six residents who will be working out of Arbon in 2020? Are you satisfied with the choice?

They are creative professionals from very different backgrounds, which means that their textile projects are also extremely diverse. They are innovative, process-oriented and seek interesting connections with textiles. They are aged between 25 to 52 and their biographical backgrounds are just as wide-ranging, with several residents having grown up in Switzerland.
I am very satisfied with the selection and feel that the intercultural residential community in Arbon, where two sets of three residents will live together for three months, will result in productive engagement. We are eager to see how it will work.

And what would be your most daring wish for TaDA?

I hope that the pilot phase will bring surprises like the number of applications for the first round, and that the successful implementation of our visions will lead to the logical continuation of the TaDA programme after 2023.

Many thanks for the interview!

Marianne Burki

Interview with
Martin Leuthold
Interview with Martin Leuthold

Textile designer Martin Leuthold has been committed to TaDA from the start and is now President of its jury. He worked for the textile company Jakob Schlaepfer for many years, as Creative Director and member of the Executive Board as well as in other positions. Today he runs his own private workshop.

Martin Leuthold, what are you currently working on?

I am currently focusing on the topic of scarves in all their variations, in a historic context and in connection with stories behind them. It all began with an exhibition that I organised last year in Roggwil castle on a craftswoman named Mimi Hauri. She was over 90 years old and had painted magnificent things on objects of wood and glass. But the costs of the planned exhibition were not covered. I asked her if I could produce foulards featuring her work. She agreed and we subsequently created six different designs. They proved successful and the financing of the exhibition was thereby assured.

All this generated a demand for such dedicated foulards. The "Nova Fundaziun Origen" foundation – an Alpine cultural institution that reinterprets local traditions beyond the confines of individual cultural disciplines and specifically deals with landscapes and public spaces, actively supports projects in the village of Mulegns in Grisons. I was inspired by buildings where the foundation had helped restore some of the historic substance, which bore traces of the village's tradition of confectioners. Patrons of the hotel "Löwen" there used to wear haute couture! Gradually this led to the creation of a collection of 20 foulards and pocket handkerchiefs in collaboration with textile designer Annina Arter. Income from their sale was reinvested in cultural projects. Here, too, the telling of stories in connection with the products was one of the keys to the success of the project.

I received further requests after that. Art historian Nina Keel, for example, who was writing her Master's thesis on 1930s architecture in St.Gallen at the time, contacted me in connection with an exhibition she was planning to hold in the interior of the Linsebühl building. There were photographs of certain construction materials and architectural details of this building, and also giving hints of its inhabitants, taken by Siegrun Appelt, an artist with whom I had organised the exhibition XULLUX in the St.Gallen Abbey library in 2018. I used these photographs for various collages and had them printed on silk. This helped assure the financing of the Master's thesis and the exhibition, entitled "Die Moderne im Kleinen". And at the same time it allowed us to convey the story of the building, one of the most important of its era in St.Gallen, in advance of the exhibition.

What is it that fascinates you in these projects around scarves?

This work involves more than just textile design, even though I find that alone a fascinating and beautiful activity. But it’s also about a specific need and a specific object. It's not about self-realisation, but about bringing stories to life. Everyone has a story to tell, and if it can be linked to a textile product, it can become even more gripping – and the story is conveyed in a new way when the textile product is worn.

You’ve been collaborating with Origen, the Grisons theatre festival, for quite a long time. What is your role there?

For 14 years now, I've been making textiles and designing costumes for Origen. After leaving Jacob Schlaepfer, I continued to develop materials of my own accord. What fascinated me in the work for Origen Is that I can only design one single costume, one piece of material, which needn't be reproducible. I can experiment, sew, embroider and paint. It's a space where I needn't think in commercial terms. At Schlaepferwe were expensive because our work consisted of industrial handicraft. The real commercialisation began after the success on the catwalk. This meant that also others took up the ideas and started with large-scale, machine-made production, which made the goods cheaper. What I mean to say is this: different spheres of work require different approaches and different ways of thinking. I always appreciate the possibility of discovering new things by means of experiment. All the materials still existing in the huge hotel Löwen in Mulegns, all the curtains, the bed linen and tablecloths no longer need to serve their original purpose. All textiles have stories woven into them through their function. My task is to process and redesign these materials. Not only in the ordinary sense of recycling, but by integrating a contemporary component.

You are also regularly in contact with universities and are interested in experimenting …

Yes, exactly. After the experiments with silicon that I conducted while still at Schlaepfer, I was part of a team atthe University of Applied Sciences and Arts Lucerne and the Bern University of the Arts, that built a 3D printer. Silicon itself is actually not textile at all, but the fashion world showed a very positive reaction. I want to continue along this path with the university in Lucerne and of course with TaDA, because I see great potential here – in this new material and in the new machine.

Many textile designers and artists have an idea of what they would do with a 3D printer and with other technologies. This can lead to exciting networks and also, I believe, holds great potential for TaDA.

After all, it is exactly such unusual connections that we are seeking to initiate and support with TaDA – bringing handicraft, arts, industrial manufacturing and other disciplines together so that they can inspire one another. This is why I was immediately on board when it came to implementing the idea of TaDA with its three sponsoring cantons.

What has changed in textile production over the past few years from your perspective?

From my point of view, I would say that the times when someone would invent something all on their own are over. There are still are a lot of patents being applied for, but far fewer than in the past. Nowadays, it's often hard to establish where and by whom something was actually invented. For example, numerous universities and countless researchers contributed to the development of laser and 3D printing. This also means opening up much more to the world and allowing more freedom. In fact, it's quite simple: the "winners" are those who have the will and the courage to dedicate themselves to an idea, to work hard on it and to see it through. I can observe this development at Empa, too. They used to conduct their research and to come up with inventions while keeping their processes secret. Nowadays, such secrecy brings far more disadvantages than advantages. It is, for example, far more difficult to find an outlet market on one's own. I am truly happy that all these firms have joined forces with TaDA. It is also a sign that they want to make a contribution to regional sharing and exchange. At Saurer, for instance, they are faced with a similar question: they build machines for craftspeople, but couldn't these machines be used for other purposes, too? I am convinced that all the players participating in TaDA stand to benefit from one another.

Why is a support programme like TaDA necessary? Isn’t this rather a domain where economic support is called for?

I believe that a cultural support programme like TaDA is needed to complement and boost economic support from the government. Various trades and professions must meet and assign work to one another. There are machines available that have fantastic potential, but nobody is there to use it. Looking at Saurer, I see they are paying serious attention to the changes in the world of textiles, for example by looking at the possibilities of using non-woven, textile-like materials for road construction or for textile fire protection gear. Non-woven has already become an important approach in the case of cast textiles. We cast plastic, produce paper – making these materials more textile is a huge and exciting challenge.

Tailoring, too, still requires a lot of handiwork even in connection with mass production. It's a remarkable fact that there have been no revolutionary advances in cutting to measure or sewing over the past 100 or 200 years. Of course, we have electronic sewing, and process steps are being merged. This is a step in the direction of seamless production, in which "textile powder" is cast to create a piece of clothing.

Embroidery is a completely different matter. Ready-made products have been manufactured in this area for a long time: socks, stockings, gloves and caps, for example. No handiwork is involved and there is more innovation. A fashion designer from Geneva and a knitter have, for example, developed a method in Italy by which an entire dress can be produced by a knitting machine. This has been done before, but not in the way they do it, with pleats and various intricate patterns and pieces of tissue. For a company like Saurer this would mean creating a new work process in which the construction of the machine is much more closely connected to manufacturing of the end product. And here it really would make sense to work with recycling.

What impact do the changes in textiles themselves have?

Textiles used to be very precious until cellulose became available. Paper for example was produced out of old clothes. Rags therefore were valuable objects. This has changed because making paper out of wood is a lot simpler. One challenge today is that many materials consist of blended fabric and merge synthetic and natural elements. What do you do with this mix in the mountains of textiles? How can you burn or grind them? The shoe industry is a bit more advanced here. They have always had to face the fact that a lot of shoes are not worn (out of six pairs of shoes produced, only one is bought and used). This is due to the non-planable demand for various sizes, and that is why shoes are still comparatively expensive even today. The shoe industry has constructed large shredder plants for unused shoes that generate plastic sheets, mosaic sheets and cork-like sheets that are used, for instance, for partitions in department stores. The combination of plastic and leather there have precisely defined functions.

A further aspect that is no doubt important for TaDA: It's not just about high-quality recycled goods and their ability to inspire change. It's also about thinking in larger dimensions. Maybe the corona crisis will lead to a different approach to textiles and textile waste. What if we all just owned two or three T-shirts? What would this mean for the market and on the production side? What kind of design, what material would we choose?

The textile industry has regularly faced challenges and undergone structural changes. What used to be valuable is now often just a cheap mass product. What’s your opinion on this?

The textile industry in St.Gallen has definitely changed over the past 50 years. Some firms have disappeared; some, such as Schoeller, have developed in the direction of high-tech. Others drew the conclusion that they need to produce enormous quantities in order to survive and shifted their production to China, Bosnia, Bulgaria – wherever. I'm not nostalgic about these changes, even though I find that it is important to keep old know-how alive for the future. Instead, I wonder: is it possible to sell luxury goods in huge quantities? Take 3D printing, for example. It's not an easy process. Ultimately, it's a form of artisans' work in the tailor shop, which practically excludes mass production. This manner of production makes the outcome a luxury good. In its 800 years of textile manufacturing, St.Gallen has only ever produced luxury goods. They worked with the finest cotton, the most valuable linen, which only noblemen could afford. This was even more evident in the case of embroidery. Since then, producers all over the world have learnt how to embroider at great speed. A small city like St.Gallen cannot hope to compete globally in this field ever again. And the social aspects of the work concerned are often neglected – which is certainly not a desirable development.

Where would you identify potential for production in Switzerland?

We have to develop and produce something here that is innovative and viable for the future. Mass production doesn't go together with a small country. On the other hand, we have an incredibly high level of education in our country. We have engineers, architects, artists, designers and also textile creators with a lot of specialist knowledge and skills. Sometimes, however, I get the impression that we don't really know how to best exploit this potential and what to do to survive. To come back to an earlier example: no-one has yet created a T-shirt of which we would be happy to have just a single one. If such a T-shirt existed, it would cost, let's say, approximately CHF 2,500. The market for such a T-shirt would be small, yet big enough. It would suffice to sell about 10,000 pieces. We wouldn't need to look for a market of millions of customers.

What was your motivation to join TaDA?

My motivation was very simple: I want to contribute to the kind of changes I've been speaking about here. I want to pass on what I've learnt. There are those who won't be interested because things will be done differently in future. I know there's a risk of becoming nostalgic – we just mustn't fall into that trap. But if people are interested in the past and then think about the future - that's when it gets interesting. For example asking yourself: What do I understand by embroidery? That's when something new can arise. I had an experience like that with a designer, with the knit clothes I mentioned before.

I have had experiences that really give you a kick with Martin Schlegel, too, in his textile printing shop in Arbon. On the one hand, he works in the same archaic way as they did 100 years ago. But with his drive and dedication, he brings contemporary elements into his work as well. Simply by the fact that he still applies a manual screen printing technique. Nobody asks him to print 1000 kilometres today – what this technique was originally made for. No, he prints things that would otherwise be impossible to do. Old tools with old methods are used for new ideas. We had an assignment, for example, to print things on sequins for Chanel. That was a real challenge. It shows that innovation can also come with the task at hand. In a way, this is what I also imagine for TaDA. There may be some challenging demands coming from the residents or the partner companies – that's how development happens. This really motivates me, as does the fact that I'm working with people of different generations and from different professions. When artists collaborate with craftsmen or craftswomen and artisans, you get a journey of discovery - because everyone is starting from a different place and coming with different ideas.

Do you see any existing initiatives that are going in this direction?

For me, the Sitterwerk foundationin St.Gallen is a good example of how different goals and attitudes can have a mutually inspiring effect. The foundry creates the products and earns money - which enables Sitterwerk to survive. They quickly realised what can be achieved with a mixture of knowledge, inspiration and tradition. The initiators immediately began to build up an archive of publications and materials, which became a task in itself. Nowadays, the Sitterwerk foundationcontributes a lot to the daily work in the foundry. But it has also opened up for all interested parties, and this, too, has a lot to do with future. Let me clarify this: The Sitterwerk foundry in St.Gallen creates small products, in a way that would not be possible in China. It again represents a sort of luxury-oriented thinking. In China, by contrast, the work culture, the manpower available and the port of Shanghai allow for a form of production that would be impossible in Switzerland. This is a very important distinction. We needn't shift everything to China on the assumption that production is too expensive here, but we need to analyse the opportunities of each location and make the best and most precise possible use of them. Moving production abroad often led to a neglect of local production and thereby a neglect of innovation. I am, however, convinced that creation, development and production must be located together. Each machine needs a human being who has an understanding of this machine. A good product needs love, experience and knowledge. Finding and organising this is not as easy as a lot of managers think. How does someone want to really understand production if there is no machine nearby? Staying with our example: If production was entirely shifted to China, I personally would rather go out there myself in order to be inventive, tweak the machines and inspire the staff. That's what it's all about. Sometimes it's enough to make a needle just a little larger or smaller - and something new will ensue. Doing that on a drawing board, alone, without experience - that's hardly possible.

To my mind, TaDA offers an open and free space in which a diversity of skills can be brought together. Artists for example, will always hold on to their inner values and guiding ideas and that is what they can bring to the mix.

What would be the greatest success you could imagine for TaDA?

I think the greatest success would to make politicians, partners and residents fully aware of the incredible range of possibilities of creation and production.

After all, it was once a dream that machines could make embroidered products affordable for the majority of people. Later came the model of a consumer-oriented society. But now it's time for a new dream, a new model. Optimising profits and considering everything from a purely economic point of view is no longer enough. If everything is geared towards consumption, the focus will be on price and not on quality or innovation.

If this attitude became more widespread over the next two or three years, that would, I believe, be a major success. Maybe after that we won't need TaDA anymore!

For myself, I also like to compare TaDA with Schlaepfer. The company has always been a sort of laboratory. In their workshop, they invariably employed 10 to 12 creative people, whereas other firms made do with one to two employees on the creative side and, for the rest, hired freelancers. These are different approaches. Personally, I firmly believe in combining ideas and production. This leads me back to the artists. It is up to them to instil enthusiasm in others and to convince them to do something just so and in no other way, without the benefit being immediately obvious. You also need to find people who will finance such ideas. This will only be possible for someone who is dedicated and does not give up easily. If there is no such enthusiasm and dedication, nothing will happen.

In the case of TaDA, I already found the visits to the partner companies exciting. For instance, it was wonderful to see the kitchen towel designs at Rigotex in the Toggenburg region, the way in which they are innovative. This alone will have an impact. The dialogue with the seven personalities from different disciplines will no doubt be enriching. The initial results may not become widely visible. But I am convinced that they will eventually lead to new kinds of real-life production.

Many thanks for the interview!

Marianne Burki