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Traditional Craftsmanship in Switzerland – by artists and experts
Over the last 150 to 200 years, the world has been characterized by constant progress, from technological achievements to the digital revolution. Nevertheless, people are still fascinated by the preservation of traditional craftsmanship. In Switzerland, this love of craftsmanship is particularly cherished, influenced by its history and the challenges of the mountains. We take a look at the treasures of traditional craftsmanship in Switzerland, where people uphold the art of carving, pottery and watchmaking.
Traditional Craftsmanship in Switzerland – by artists and experts.
Customs and Traditions
If we look back, especially over the past 150-to-200 years, we can see that they have been characterized by constant searching, researching, trying, and testing, as we looked for increasingly more ways and ideas to make life easier, more beautiful, or bring in new things. Today, we circumvent the world at 180 km/h (111 mph) and traverse the globe, and the digital world’s latest achievements, including artificial intelligence, are not even recognizable given their original objectives. Of course, all these advances have also affected traditional activities in the trade, administration, and communication sectors, and yet, curiously, there is a desire among people not to forget the old, and even keep it alive.
This desire is particularly widespread in the craft sector. There are two trends here: On the one hand, there is a demand for traditional craftsmanship because antiques need to be repaired, or precious old buildings can only be preserved using these methods, for example, thatch roofs by the ocean or shingle roofs and walls seen in the mountains – this includes the processing of all metal and wood using old methods to produce folklorist treasures – I am thinking of carving, wood turning, and blacksmithing.
On the other hand, some techniques are simply a joy to learn and encourage people to do as the ancients did; these include ceramics, sewing, embroidery, and crocheting. And it is hard to believe that the trend toward making things yourself, with your own two hands, is greater than ever, not because you must, but because you want to.
Every country has its characteristics, depending on its history, geographical location, and general economic conditions, of course. As the cold season is just around the corner, and our fall/winter issue focuses on mountain worlds, our journey today takes us to Switzerland, where traditional craftsmanship is highly cherished.
Who would be surprised? People lived remotely in desolate valleys, dominated by large mountains that made it difficult to get around in the cold, dark season. Long, dark winter nights could only be endured at home in front of the warm stove, so, the house had to be prepared and there was plenty of wood to cover the roof and walls with shingles, so, people sat around the reasonably well-lit family table, painting, carving, making pottery or knitting a warm hat to fill the long Winter evenings.
More toward the north of Eastern Switzerland and south of St. Gallen, the people of Appenzell and Toggenburg have been painting their furniture since the 16th century, often in the traditional form of rustic “peasant painting.” Even today, ambition knows no bounds, whether it be personal motifs or typical pictures of cows and Appenzell farmhouses, the furniture is decorated just like in the olden days.
You should now head west to reach the beautifully situated lakes of Brienz and Thun. The Swiss Woodcarving Museum is on the eastern shore of Lake Brienz in Brienz. It was founded because woodcarvers have been at home here since the beginning of the 19th century. The “School for Woodcarvers” trains woodcarvers, as well as wood turners, basket weavers, and coopers.
After three quarters of an hour’s drive on the A8, along the shores of both lakes, we reach Thun on the western shore of Lake Thun. The Thun-Heimberg-Langenau area is the Swiss center for handmade pottery. Small family businesses produce the popular peasant ceramics using “engobe painting”, which involves applying slip (a viscous mixture of water and minerals) to the pottery with a brush.
If you want to see houses with original wooden shingles on the walls and roof, drive southwest from Thun to the foothills of the Alps in Fribourg and Vaud, close to Lake Geneva. The shingle makers take spruce wood, split it with “feel” and then cut out the shingle. It has become a rare trade, but a house fitted with these can last over 100 years.
So-called Poya pictures can be found in the same area. Usually in black and white, they show the animals moving up to the mountain pastures and proudly adorn livestock farms. They are still made today, and in Bulle, there is the “le Musée gruérien.”
Switzerland is renowned for its masterful watchmaking skills. A “Fabrique” in the Saint-Gervais district of Geneva is home to all the expertise of watchmakers, goldsmiths, and jewelers. In addition to watches, precious metals are also skillfully crafted here. World-famous and coveted luxury items such as the “Boules de Genève” (Geneva balls) made of gold or “Émaux de Genève” (Geneva Enamel) with artistic paintings enchant everyone. On the other hand, the “Poinçon de Genève” (Geneva Seal) is a legally protected certificate of quality and origin for mechanical watches built and regulated in the canton of Geneva.
To the west of Bern lies Neuchâtel on the lake by the same name. It was here where women came together in the 17th century and founded a lace-making industry that attracted worldwide attention. They used linen and silk with a specific, characteristic pattern that was protected. The motifs changed with the fashion trends, first Mechlin lace, then Valenciennes lace, then Binche lace. Production ceased as early as 1830, as lace could be manufactured more cheaply using machines. Today, the people of Neuchâtel only make lace in their spare time. Museums in the area preserve examples of these old lace-making achievements.
The art of paper cutting was, and is still is, widespread throughout Switzerland, especially in the Saanenland, the Simmental (between Interlaken and Lake Geneva), and in the canton of Fribourg. The most amazing works of art can be created with paper, in black and white or in color, using only scissors and a cutter. From scenes of alpine parades and cheese-making, flower patterns or typical local wooden houses to modern abstract motifs, this tradition has been preserved to this day. There is even a “Swiss Association of Friends of Silhouettes.”
Silk ribbon and ribbon weaving was at home in the Basel, Aargau, and Solothurn regions until 2004. Silk ribbon weaving was introduced to the Basel region in the 16th century by Italian and French religious refugees, and led to a widespread cottage industry. It left a lasting mark on the country.
The information brochure Living Traditions of Switzerland reports:
Weaves are preserved in museums by trained museum weavers.
A trip to the Graubünden region, Engadin, Bergell, or Val Müstair is especially worthwhile, as the houses here are adorned with sgraffito ornaments. Patterns are scratched out of a damp layer of plaster, covered with a light coat of lime paint, using pens and knives, revealing the darker lime mortar underneath. In the 17th and 18th centuries, in particular, houses were finished in this way, establishing the Bündner Heimatstil.
Finally, a craft that everyone can do at home: straw weaving! The Swiss in Freiamt, south of Zurich near Lucerne, learned this technique from the Italians in the 16th century. First, as home weaving, later hats, brooches, stars, and trimmings were woven on an industrial scale, but here, too, the straw industry came to a standstill at the end of the 19th century. Today, braiding is a hobby for individual enthusiasts in Switzerland. Tessa AG in Villmergen in the canton of Aargau is the only company still producing high-quality braids. These are exported worldwide for further processing.