Export of textile goods to West-Africa

Out to Africa!

Vorarlberg is an innovative economic region that, with Upper Austria, has the highest industrial density in the whole country. Alongside fruit juices, cheese, lighting, metal fittings, timber, engineering and electronics, the region is primarily known for specialist embroidery and other textile finishings.

(Image: Markus Winkler / Unsplash)

And it owes this prowess partly to Switzerland. In 1751, merchants from St. Gallen saw Turkish women using gold and silver thread to embroider silk stretched over a drum. And, no sooner seen than done, they dispatched one of their countrywomen to learn this intricate craft, and she subsequently passed on her skills to others in St. Gallen. Soon the embroidered goods were selling so well that new recruits had to be sought in Bregenz Forest across the border to Austria. In no time the locals too were learning the tricks of the trade – after all, a second source of income was always welcome for farmers' families. And over the years, embroidery exports to Switzerland fueled a whole rural industry. New embroidery machines came into use from the 1860s, with no less than 1400 in operation in the region by 1880.

Much has changed since then, but some traditions have survived intact for the past 250 years. The Vorarlberg embroidery factories are owned by families who personally vouch for their quality standards and ensure excellent customer service. In 2016 these companies exported 345 tons of embroidery worth a total of 36 million euros. Just under half of the merchandise found its way across Europe, most notably to France, Switzerland and Germany. Perhaps surprisingly at first glance, a further 40 percent was sold to Nigeria.

At the start of the 1960s, the Vorarlberg embroiderers presented their wares in western Africa, prompting such enthusiasm that they soon became an export hit. Increasing numbers of Nigerian merchants descended on Vorarlberg where they placed their orders on the spot, paying in cash. Gebrüder Weiss took charge of delivery, sometimes transporting 100 tons of European fabric a week including 70 tons of embroidered goods. Walter Schneider, then manager of the Gebrüder Weiss branch in Lustenau and the network coordinator for African sales, remembers well: "Once a week, starting in 1978, a Boeing 747 flew from Paris to Cotonou, the main economic hub in the neighboring country of Benin. Back then we had no option but to partner with other shipping companies in Lustenau because we couldn't handle the high demand on our own. We labelled the pallets and loaded the materials onto them in Lustenau. Intake was on Friday and delivery was on Sunday."

Until the late 1980s, exports to West Africa boomed. Then business declined significantly as a result of the devaluation of African currencies. However, the trade in exclusive goods proved sustainable and the fine fabrics from Lustenau still find their way around the world. For someone somewhere, it seems, they will always be the height of fashion.

Imke Borchers is a literary scholar and editor for the Atlas.

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