I never thought of Switzerland as being a producer of silk until Alexa sent me a parcel of silk ribbons. I know of it for it’s picturesque landscapes, gorgeous snow tipped mountains, old wealth due to a sound and independent banking system and of course, delicious chocolate.
At a push I have read about the cotton mills in Zurich and embroidery but never the silk ribbon trade. So I did some research which was surprisingly hard as there is not much reference to Switzerland in silk books. However I was left ‘enlightened’ by what I learnt.
Zurich and Basel where the important silk towns (Geneva‘s principal industry in the eighteenth century was clock making) of Switzerland. Basel, a city in Northern Switzerland, was the town in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s known for it’s banking and chemical industry: the companies which started out dyeing silk ribbons woven by Huguenot refugees centuries ago are now the worldâ€™s largest pharmaceutical companies (1).
The swiss ribbon makers lived outside the cities, like the watch and embroidery workers, often working from home and outside the restrictions of the guilds (sounds a bit like how I work). The Bandelherren or ‘ribbon lords’, lived in the town and supplied the venture capital for the industry (2). Due to the amount of investment the industry grew rapidly as new techniques, machinery and systems were invented and developed. It was the textile and silk industry that initiated the Swiss industrial revolution and by the end of the nineteenth century silk-dyeing for ribbons had become a separate branch of the industry(3).Over time the dyeing of ribbons changed to a demand for colouring and dyestuffs, which ensured the infant organic chemical companies a safe market (it is important to note that there were no patent laws) (4).
I find it almost lovely how it all started with a silk worm and I have a peice of the beginning of an industry that is barely there today and hardly known. :)