An Amazing Woman

Hello! Today, I’d like to tell you about an amazing woman I recently got to know. Well, not in person, but… Okay, let’s begin at the beginning. For the second half of our German holiday we rented the attic of a house entirely overgrown with grape vines, Virginia creeper and roses.

In the hallway, there was a poster of the local weaving museum, in the former school of the village of Schalkenmehren, next to the church. To give you an idea of the location, here is a photograph I took from high up on a hill. The red arrow points to the museum.

Entering the museum, it became immediately clear that local teacher Anna Droste-Lehnert (1892-1976) had played a very important part in the village weaving industry. Hang on, that name sounds familiar. Could she be…?

Yes, as it turned out she was our landlord’s grandmother, and the house we were staying in belonged to her family. How nice! This is a photograph of her in 1920, aged 28 and newly arrived in the village.

The 1920s were a time of great economic hardship for the country, and the people of the farming community of Schalkenmehren were struggling to keep their heads above water. Anna came up with the idea of reintroducing home weaving as a way to supplement their incomes. At first she met with strong opposition. But, just like when her father opposed her wish to become a teacher, Anna didn’t give up.

After a while, one farmer began to see sense in what she said, and soon others followed. They retrieved old looms from attics and barns, repaired them and began to weave again. Some of these looms are on display in the museum, from fairly simple to more advanced ones, and dating from the early 19th to the 20th Century.

More and more people in Schalkenmehren joined in the weaving. Next to her work as a school teacher, Anna worked hard at organizing everything and improving the quality of the weaving. She experimented with natural dyes from plants found around the village. There were some fifty that could be used.

The museum has a small garden with many of the local dye plants.

Anna travelled quite a bit to gain more knowledge about weaving and dyeing techniques and materials, which was unusual for someone of her station at the time. She was also the creative force behind the weavers, designing most of their patterns. There are many samples on display in the museum.

In the wake of the weaving revival, other crafts supplementing the villagers’ incomes were also flowering, like knotting fringes on woven throws, sewing clothes from the woven fabrics…

… and embellishing them with lace, embroidery and smocking. Here is an example of smocking on a blouse.

I loved seeing all of this beautiful work, and I also loved the kitchen-cum-sewing-room in the museum:

In a friendly way, Anna was very demanding with regard to the quality of the weaving and sewing, and that paid off. The fine quality woven fabrics known as Maartuch became popular in the entire country.

In the end industrial mass production won out, but home weaving was a serious source of income for six decades. The last village weaver stopped weaving in 1981 and his loom is now in the museum, looking as if he has only gone for a coffee break.

Visiting the museum, I marvelled at how much one woman had been able to achieve. Not entirely on her own, of course – after several years a weaving cooperative was formed. But still… what an amazing woman.

I wondered how she kept all of this going after losing two of her three children. A booklet about her life said that she never quite recovered from those losses (who would?). But then I thought of the embroidered towel hanging in the museum’s kitchen-cum-sewing-room, with the German saying Freudiches Schaffen macht das Herz lachen (Joyful creating makes the heart smile).

Maybe it was the other way around. Maybe it was the weaving, dyeing and designing that kept her going.

The address of Heimweberei-Museum Schalkenmehren is: Mehrener Strasse 5, 54552 Schalkenmehren. The museum is only open on Sundays from 3-5 p.m. and does not have a website of its own. Up-to-date information can be found here on the Eifel Tourism website