{Germany} Bandweberei Kafka

March 23, 2015

Germany

The German city of Wuppertal has a very industrial history. The Wupper valley (from which the city gets its name) is one of the oldest industrial regions in Europe, and in the 18th and 19th centuries was also one of the biggest. It was particularly known for its textile industry, which made up around 70-80% of its industrial production in the late 19th century, and is, amongst other things, famous for its history of ribbon weaving mills.

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One of these ribbon weaving mills – the Bandweberei Kafka – still operates in the traditional way today. Its history dates back to 1898, when Bernhard Merdey set up a weaving mill as a ‘factory to rent’ in what is now Wuppertal’s suburb of Langenfeld. As the old production techniques became less efficient, the mill was in danger of closing down but was saved by textile designer Frauke Kafka, who turned it in to a living, working museum for almost 20 years. In 2010, it moved in to larger premises, to better accommodate the 25 lovingly restored Jacquard weaving looms – the oldest of which is 120 years old – and the ever growing collection of ribbons. For anyone unfamiliar with a Jacquard loom, it involves a chain of punched pattern cards, which the loom ‘reads’.

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The mill has since changed hands and is no longer run as a museum (though you will still find it listed as such as the new owners inherited the name), but it still opens its doors once a week to visitors interested in finding out about this very special part of Wuppertal’s history. The rest of the time, the mill still operates as a functional business, with the looms in full operation 40 hours a week. Alongside the owners and staff who run the shop in the adjacent historic house, two ribbon weavers – known today as textile mechanics – work here, each in charge of one of the two floors. #MuseumBoy was a bit worried about the noise, but the very friendly lady who patiently showed us around assured him that they wore noise cancelling ear protectors while at work.

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The textile mechanics learn their trade on modern, computer operated machines where the patterns are digitally generated, and then need to re-school, so to speak, to the traditional techniques, where the aforementioned chain of punched cardboard cards produces the often complex patterns and involves more than just sitting in front of a screen. The machines need to be regularly patrolled and serviced, with tasks involving anything from re-spooling all the cotton threads on to the custom made bobbins, to welding jobs on looms in need of repair. And of course the looms need to be set up to weave the individual patterns, of which there are 450 in the current range. Each pattern requires up to 850 pattern cards, which the weavers make using a special card puncher and then painstakingly sew together to make the chain, which gets installed on a loom. It really is a labour of love, more of a vocation than a job.

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Visitors can view the mill on Wednesday afternoons after the weavers have stopped work for the day, and on afternoons of the 2nd Saturday of each month from January until the Saturday before Christmas, with additional Saturdays during October – December (with the exception of public holidays). Occasionally there will be no viewings, but you can check their website for up to date news, which is also available in English.

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The mill is a bit further away from the city centre, but there is a bus that stops almost at the front door, and it’s well worth the visit for an insight in to this important piece of local history. And, of course, you should take the opportunity to buy some ribbons from the vast selection in the shop while you’re there. Even if you are not a sewer or crafter, a piece of ribbon from this unique weaving mill makes for an equally unique souvenir, and are much sought after world wide. You can choose from both traditional and contemporary patterns, such as the ribbon with a pattern of the  ‘Schwebebahn’, Wuppertal’s famous monorail of which we took some home with us! And for those of you who can’t make it to Wuppertal, there is also an online shop (and they deliver to many other European countries too).

Thank you so much to the lovely staff for showing us around, patiently answering all my questions, and humouring #MuseumBoy with juice and cookies. We will definitely visit again when we come back to Wuppertal!

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  1. {Germany} The Museum for Early Industrialisation | Museum Diary - April 13, 2015

    […] mentioned in my post about the Bandweberei Kafka, Wuppertal has a very industrial history, so it’s not surprising to find such a museum here. […]

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