If you enter the Exhibition of Decorative Arts through the monumental gate of the Place de la Concorde, a clear, harmonious pavilion of robust elegance will immediately catch your eye, facing you, a little to the right. Do not miss to stop there. It contains a precious collection of the most beautiful fabrics produced in Alsace.
It was built, under the auspices of the Commercial and Industrial Society of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, by the eight weaving mills of this old active city with the help of the three companies which make up the textile industry of Colmar.
The Commercial and Industrial Society of Sainte-Marie, presided over with distinction by Mr. Albert Kœnig, founded in 1871 to face up to the serious economic difficulties created by the consequences of the Treaty of Frankfurt, and which has behind it the imposing baggage of fifty-four years of fruitful existence, wanted the participation of its members in the great international event of the Decorative Arts to take on a certain magnitude, because for the textile industry of the Haut-Rhin, it was a real return.
Since the annexation, the textile industry of the Haut-Rhin had refrained from taking part in any exhibition, so as not to appear under the German colours.
Sainte-Marie thought of appealing to Colmar for the construction of a special pavilion. His invitation was immediately accepted.
On this occasion, the spirit of union responded to the spirit of enterprise. And so the beautiful white pavilion with its sober lines, the work of the Gallot brothers, the well-known Parisian decorators, was built, attracting all visitors to the Exhibition with its appealing silhouette.
Sainte-Marie owes its name to the mines that made it famous in the Middle Ages, mines of lead, cobalt, arsenic and silver. Towards the end of the fifteenth century and in the first half of the sixteenth, the mines of Sainte-Marie yielded enormous blocks of solid silver, the most beautiful ever seen in Europe. But in time, the mines dried up and their exploitation declined.
In the eighteenth century, Sainte-Marie was falling asleep to the murmur of its river, the Liepvrette, a limpid song barely disturbed by the monotonous noise of a few scattered trades, which timidly, one by one, had made their appearance in the valley, trades of weavers, trades of hosiery makers, trades of button-makers, when there arrived the man who was going to pull it out of its beginning lethargy and endow it with the new industry which was to ensure its future.
Energetic and enterprising, with the character of a conqueror and builder, Jean-Georges Reber, who was born in Mulhouse on 5 January 1731, had created a ribbon factory in his native town in 1754, using new looms, the model of which he had brought back from Holland, and on which up to 16 ribbons could be woven at a time. Faced with this progress, the local routine had to rise up! Giving in to the complaints of the town's weavers, the Grand Council of Mulhouse forbade Reber to operate his looms.
Reber left Mulhouse. He came to settle in Sainte-Marie where he joined forces with two obscure Mulhouse residents who had preceded him there a few years earlier and had introduced a cotton canvas weaving business. Under the impetus of Jean-Georges Reber, the hitherto hesitant company gained rapid momentum. In the space of a year, it had grown to such an extent that M. de Lucé, Intendant of Alsace, granted it, on 29 March 1756, in addition to various privileges and exemptions, a monopoly on the manufacture of pure cotton cloth and cotton-thread cloth throughout the province, from the limits of the suburbs of Strasbourg to the mountains that separate Switzerland from Franche-Comté. From that moment on, the textile industry of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines was born.
In 1796, at the age of sixty-five, Jean-Georges Reber retired from business, leaving his estate to Jean Blech, his son-in-law. Since then, the company has continued to grow. Today, it is in the capable hands of René and Jacques Blech.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF AN INDUSTRY
More than twenty years after his retirement, his weaving mill, passed on in 1818 to his grandsons under the name Blech frères, still constituted the only element of the textile industry of the valley.
But in 1820, in Liepvre, on the outskirts of the town, the Dietsch establishments appeared. They were established on the site of a former priory of the abbey of Saint-Denis, built in 774 by a powerful abbot named Fulrade and razed to the ground by the Revolution. As early as 1845, mechanical weaving was applied to the manufacture of fancy fabrics, which until then had been reserved for hand looms. Subsequently, the Dietsch company acquired a great reputation for the quality and durability of its fabrics, particularly worsted wool. After 1870, a branch office in France enabled the company to break free from the patriotic abstention of the textile industry in the Upper Rhine region. It participated in the Paris World Fairs of 1878, 1889 and 1900 without appearing under the German pavilion and won flattering awards. Today, under the management of Mr. Camille Dietsch, it holds an enviable position among its peers.
Shortly after the Dietsch workshops had taken the place of the disappeared monastery of Abbot Fulrade, the Baumgartner establishments were created in 1824 at Sainte-Marie itself and devoted themselves to dyeing and finishing. They were to provide weaving with the most effective support. Indeed, it must not be concealed that, without the help of the dyeing and finishing factories which allowed the completion of the manufacture on the spot, the extension of the weaving itself would not have observed such a fast march nor of such considerable proportions. Like the previous companies and those that were to come into being a little later, the Baumgartner establishments had modest beginnings and owed their success only to the intelligence and persevering work of their managers. Managed by Messrs Léon and Pierre Baumgartner, their production capacity today reaches several hundred pieces per day.
It was then, in 1832, that a compatriot of Jean-Georges Reber, the son of an industrialist from Mulhouse, Mr. Napoléon Kœnig, founded the company which in a few years, under the name of Kœnig et O', was to become considerable in the textile industry of Alsace and which* is currently managed by Mr. Albert Kœnig, president of the Commercial and Industrial Society of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, and Mr. Francis Kœnig.
Napoléon Kœnig brought together a hundred or so looms and manufactured cotton fabric, in particular madras. Later, he produced "half-wool" and "pure wool".
After the difficult period of 1870, the company, which was greatly enlarged, set up Jacquard looms and began to manufacture "wool and silk" and high quality novelties with rare happiness and great success. In 1906, in order to be in better contact with its important French clientele, it had created a mechanical weaving mill in Marie, in the Aisne, which it has sold since the peace. Today, it has increased its original equipment almost tenfold.
In addition to its large factory in Sainte-Marie, it has an annex in Châtenois and another in Steige. Its specialisation in high quality fabrics has earned it a demand from all over the world that it can hardly satisfy. It ranks among the major French textile exporters.
Another creation to be noted, in 1838: that of the Simon et Cie company. Modest beginnings, like its elders. Then, a progressive and vigorous development, parallel to the general movement of the textile production of Sainte-Marie, more and more known year after year, more and more appreciated by the consumer. Messrs. Bernard Meier, Albert Jacob, Alphonse Zimmerman are currently leading the Simon et Cie company. They have constantly expanded their business and have spread numerous hand and machine looms throughout the valley around the parent company.
After 1838, twenty-five years passed before the textile industry in Sainte-Marie had one more unit. It was not until 1863 that a new company, Kling et Cie, was founded. Its novelties for ladies were very successful. Nowadays, the company is run by its owners, Fernand Kling and Alfred Grimm, and is dedicated exclusively to the production of pure wool and wool and cotton fabrics.
Seventeen years later, in 1880, Mr. Charles Felmé founded the Felmé et Cie company, which is now managed by Mr. Paul Felmé, together with Mr. Ernest Musch. At first, Mr. Felmé père limited his production to fancy woollens for ladies. Today, the company, equipped with a completely modern installation, has acquired a high reputation for the beautiful tartan fabrics, of harmonious colours and tasteful variety, which form its real speciality.
Nearly thirty years later, the youngest of the Sainte-Marie textile establishments has arrived. The Edler and Lepavec company, under the management of Mr. Albert Edler and Mr. Georges Lepavec, was established on April 1, 1908. It was dedicated to the production of novelty fabrics for ladies and girls. It immediately succeeded in becoming a leader in this field and its creations, which were highly appreciated, gained new markets year after year.
And so, from one step to the next, thanks to the effect of tireless wills and also by virtue of that professional conscience so developed in the workers of Alsace and which gives the production an incomparable quality, the textile industry of the old working town, which is irrigated by the river Liepvre, has grown until it is known throughout the world.
But perhaps it would not be fair, before closing this nomenclature, which encloses a little more than a century of the economic history of a legion, not to see what has become of the mother cell of this enormous movement. the old house, the ancestor.
Under the name Blech frères et Cie, which it has carried since 1890, Jean-Georges Reber's company, all modern, that is to say always innovative, its initial equipment more than tenfold, produces fabrics of a quality rarely equalled, never surpassed, and which are abroad first-rate respondents of French textiles.
TEXTILES IN COLMAR
At about the same time that textiles were beginning to take on new elements in Sainte-Marie, they were being born in Colmar.
But it had already appeared in the region of Colmar, in Logelbach, where an Indian factory had been established in 1775 and where, in 1816, the Herzog establishments were founded, which constituted the first cotton mill. Today, in full prosperity under the management of Mr. Emile Muller, the Herzog establishments spin and weave with cotton, wool and silk.
As for Colmar, it was only in 1829 that André Kiener, the founder of the spinning, weaving and finishing house A. Kiener et Cie, which is now considerable, set up his first workshop to the east of the town, at a place called Mittlachmuhl. The company had a modest start. It had a mediocre number of trades. Its operation was conditioned and limited by the variable flow of an old mill on the Lauch. But it was full of boldness and spirit of progress since it used hydraulic power. As the local weavers only used hand looms, it first had to train staff in the new method of working.
In twenty years, by 1848, it had doubled its equipment. Today, the Kiener establishments, run by André Kiener's grandson and great-grandson, have such a complete set of tools that they transform a raw fleece, barely fallen from the sheep's loins, into a finished piece ready to appear on the seller's counter.
They work 15,000 kilograms of wool daily and their outbuildings cover 15 hectares, 10 of which are built.
Of much more recent creation, since their foundation by Mr. G. and Mr. F. Gensbourger goes back to 1893, the Gensbourger mechanical weaving establishments, constituted as a limited company and administered by Mr. G. Gensbourger, owed a brilliant and rapid fortune to the activity of their leaders. Thirty years were enough for them to triple their output.
After the inertia imposed by the war on the whole Alsatian and Lorraine industry, the Gensbourger weaving mill took part in the first rank of the great awakening sounded by the armistice. In addition to Paris and the whole of France, its production now reaches all the capitals.
LET'S DRESS UP AT HOME
Before 1870, the Upper Rhine textile industry worked mainly for France and for export. The artificial border erected by the Treaty of Frankfurt separated it from its main customers. Without losing contact with the latter, while continuing its efforts on foreign markets, it was necessary, in order to give a secure basis to its existence, to try to win the German market. This was a complete recovery, a delicate and perilous gymnastics in the economic field.
Forty-four years later, the cannon of 1914 announced a new reversal of things. The war years were hard on him. But the cessation of hostilities, the return to the mother country, by bringing to his trades a prodigious resurrection of activity, were to compensate him for his long ordeal, but not without posing new and difficult problems. For the second time, he had to make a sharp economic about-face.
The wonderful development of the textile industry in the Upper Rhine region is best admired when one considers the vicissitudes through which it has continued to grow.
Today, it has repudiated its conquest of yesterday, i.e. it has freed itself from the German market. Its exports, always growing in quantity and depth, spread the fame of the French fabric all over the world, just as they contribute appreciable figures to the continuous improvement of the French trade balance. But above all, it is important that it should increasingly oppose foreign competition on the French market. There are not only sentimental reasons for this. The reasons which intervene are reasons of interest, reasons of general interest on which it would be superfluous to insist when the book stands at a level of overwhelming eloquence, reasons of particular interest, of individual interest so to speak, because nowhere, in any other country, even on the other side of the sea, are more beautiful fabrics made than the fabrics which Alsace weaves and dyes.
Madam, it is above all for you that the Alsace of weavers works! When you leave the white pavilion facing the monumental gate of the Place de la Concorde, in the enclosure of the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs, after you have appreciated as an informed elegant woman the harmonious displays of the Kieners, the Gensburgers, the Herzbergers, the Herzbergers, the Herzbergers, the Herzbergers, the Herzbergers, the Herzbergers, the Herzbergers, the Herzbergers, the Gensbourgers, the Herzogs, the Blechs, the Kœnigs, the Baumgartners, the Dietsches, the Simons, the Klings, the Felmés, the Edlers and the Lepavecs, from Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, remember what your attentive eyes, your connoisseur eyes will have seen. The fabrics of Alsace, between all, are distinguished and recommended by the luminous smoothness of their colours and their incomparable softness. It seems that they derive the nuanced brilliance of their colours from the extreme purity of the water flowing in the valleys there. And their indefinable character of softness to the touch, of fullness in the hand, if one may say so, comes from this taste for the neat, the finished, the comfortable, which is like the very stamp of Alsace, which it imprints on everything it produces and which is breathed in by everything that is its face, its landscapes, its homes and its interiors.
Shall we then ingenuously, somewhat naively, go outside to look for something better, less good, at ruinous prices! Let the French woman, better educated in the resources of her country, leave it to the Alsatian weaver to take care of the delicate task of dressing her.
©L’Illustration - 1925