Pride & Decoration
WHEN MEETING ULRICH THALER, TWO THINGS STRIKE YOU RIGHT FROM THE START: HIS PASSION FOR HIS CRAFT, AND HOW PROUD HE IS OF HAVING MASTERED SUCH A RARE AND EXTRAORDINARY SKILL THE LIKES OF QUILLWORK EMBROIDERY.
He was born in 1978 and doesn’t need that many tools to conjure beautiful jewels made from cow and calf leather or the quills of peacocks. All he requires are a bodkin with a flat, sharp end, Punziereisen, a sharp splitting knife for the quill and a small wooden working station. All handmade, of course. The perfectly tidy, clean, small workshop is located in Sarntal, just north of South Tyrol’s capital, Bozen, towards Sterzing. Here, Ulrich works together with his father, Johann, and his siblings, Andrea and Georg as well as their other colleagues, practising this 100% handmade craft. Quillwork embroidery is a 150-yearold preserved tradition so, although quillwork embroidered tools and clothes have a long-standing tradition outside of Tyrol in the upper regions of Bavaria, Austria, and in Salzburg, the Gail Valley in Carinthia, the heart of the production is indubitably in Sarntal.
Quill embroidery requires craftsmanship, creativity, a sharp eye and, last but not least, years of practice and experience. The profession of quill embroiderer is a recognised one in South Tyrol and requires a 4-to-5 year apprenticeship. Ulrich Thaler also believes that the choice of traditional patterns and their symbology is also quite important. ‘The historical pieces often carry symbols representing farming activities, and guilds such as carpenters, joiners, butchers, carters or innkeepers; but they also featured aphorisms, religious and hunting patterns, lions, eagles, Solomon’s seal and trees of life’, he explains. It’s not that rare to stumble upon stitches and patterns with funny sounding names such as ‘running dog‘. The Thaler family processes the tail feathers of 60 peacocks a year. When these majestic birds lose their tail feathers during the moult in July/August, farmers from all over the province Hand them over to the quill embroiderers to make their refined products. It’s only during bottleneck periods that the family also uses peacock feathers from the zoo. ‘Contrary to the past, today the quills are nearly all white as nature commands; we only add a coloured hue, using food colouring, if we want to create small contrasts on single quills. The preferred colours are red, yellow, and green’, explains Thaler.
A sharp quill and white Indian ink are used to etch the traditional patterns on the varnished brown or black leather before the slit for the embroidery is inserted sideways. The sharpened quills are then passed through the needle in such a way that the shiny part remains on top, while the opaque one on the bottom. A possibly wider, richly decorated belt has been a status symbol since time immemorial according to Ulrich Thaler; just think that such an individual piece would have cost you a good 2 – 3 milk cows or 2 horses 200 years ago. There’s a 2-year waiting list for such a richly decorated traditional belt, which can take as much as 100 – 200 working hours. The manufacturing of traditional belts for men – Fatschen, Blattlranzen, Riemen and Doppelzwickel, as they’re called based on the area of origin, shape, and design – is still the king discipline of quill embroidery. All of the belts feature a hand engraved silver or brass clasp. The experienced fingers of these master craftsmen also produce quill embroidered traditional shoes, laces for bells, belts and belt clasps, so called ‘Metzgertaschen’ (butcher’s bag), wedding albums, menus, and keyrings. ‘My grandfather was taught the craft of quill embroidery after WWII; he was the first in the valley to make this an actual job, so he has to be applauded for refining the technique,’ recounts Ulrich Thaler. His father Johann then fine-tuned it even more and, just like his brother Luis, learnt the trade from Ulrich’s grandfather.