In February 2018, project members Susanna Burghartz and Katherine Bond joined forces with the dress and textile specialist Hilary Davidson to reconstruct the remarkable height and idiosyncratic shape of Zürich church veils in the eighteenth century. Known locally as ‘Tächli-Tüchli’, they were aesthetically striking, resembling, with their sharp folds and steep points, the nib of a fountain pen.
In their time, Tächli-Tüchli were the subject of vehement campaigning by Zürich’s reformed council. They were at once a mandatory church-covering and a fashionable object, evolving into new modes, shapes, and heights that drew contempt from local authorities for their ‘excessively large and vexatious corners’.
Among the material holdings of the Swiss National Museum in Zürich is an extant veil, stored as part of a larger ensemble of women’s church-wear dated to the seventeenth or eighteenth century. Lightweight and diaphanous, we wondered: how did such a veil achieve the crisp precision and solidity Tächli-Tüchli had according to pictorial evidence? Would it be possible for us to transform something so delicate into a decisive composition of contours and folds?
We performed a technical analysis of the Zürich veil at the museum’s storage facility in Affoltern am Albis. With the assistance of textile curator Andrea Franzen and conservator Elke Mürau, the group made some interesting findings, above all, that the veil was not made from linen, but from a cotton muslin or voile-like fabric. The textile is therefore likely to have been connected to Zürich’s flourishing cotton industry which arose outside of the guild system from the middle of the sixteenth century. Exceptionally fine and semi-transparent, the veil has been very finely hemmed with cotton thread conforming to contemporary techniques on veils, handkerchiefs, and other muslin articles.
However, the stitching of the veil’s pleated edge is haphazard, and the pleats are spaced irregularly. Might the veil have been purchased as a hemmed rectangle, later pleated and stitched by a new owner to keep its shape in place? The uneven basting stitch could suggest that the thread was intended to be impermanent and removable. This textile could have been used in any number of ways in female dress, so its form as a veil was not necessarily its final one.
Hilary Davidson created a modern interpretation of the veil using the finest, lightest cotton textile available, sufficiently replicated the original’s weight and plasticity. The veil’s dimensions, pleating, and stitching were then reproduced as closely as possible.
A basic coif, or head-cap was also stitched. Coifs were standard undergarments worn under veils and hoods in the early modern period. Our model’s hair was bundled into a bun-shape at the nape of the neck, enclosed by the coif. This formed a bottom-heavy foundation that the triangular Tächli-Tüchli could begin to be shaped around.
Shaping began with the assumption that the exaggerated height and form could be achieved without an underlying structure. The soft fabric’s malleability thus needed to be counteracted with the use of starch. We used a modern spray starch that, when heat-set, transformed the cotton into a crisp, papery material that could be moulded and pinned into shape, keeping itself upright.
7. Noblewomen in their church-wear. From Johann Andreas Pfeffel, Schweizerisches Trachten-Cabinet… (ca. 1750).
Even with the technical acuity of practiced hands, it would have been an exceptional challenge to craft and affix this complicated veil to one’s own head. The requirement for specialist Tüchlerinnen – women recorded to have recorded to have passed from house to house on Sunday mornings to prepare the ladies’ cloth edifices before service – was made evident insofar as a deft hand was needed to manipulate the pliable textile into its ‘corners’ without creasing or unstiffening its fragile, papery surface.
We discovered the need for a second piece of fabric. It was not possible with a single veil piece to form the central folded ‘U’-shape that hung over the forehead, as well as the sides that met in an inverted ‘V’-shape at its highest point. It was also difficult to maintain the height and rigidity with starch and pins alone, leading us to postulate that a purpose-designed under-structure might have supported the imposing form. Such a frame might have been made of wool-felt or wire, as other headdress-supports were, according to the testimony of the Venetian dress commentator Cesare Vecellio (in his Degli habiti antichi et moderni, 1590).
We also attempted to craft the veil into a lower shape pictured to have been worn by burgher women to church. This also emphasised the requirement for a supporting frame. Its distinctive horse hoof-shaped ‘U’ is almost sculpted into the cloth, and might have involved dip-starching, drying, or heat-setting the cloth over a special mould. The haptic or kinetic knowledge possessed by the Tüchlerinnen in arranging veils became more apparent, suggesting why their skills were valued and distributed around the neighbourhood.
9. Burgherwoman in her church-wear. From Johann Andreas Pfeffel, Schweizerisches Trachten-Cabinet… (ca. 1750)
10. The veil is manipulated into the lower ‘U’ shape worn by burgherwomen.
Tächli-Tüchli from the beginning of the eighteenth century were an innovation that necessitated multiple veil-cloths, starch, pins, and, quite possibly, very particular supporting frames. They were an unwieldy art-form that pushed dexterous hands to meet technically ingenious solutions. An intuitive or practiced understanding of the material properties of starched cotton enabled makers to achieve the fluency of the ‘U’-shaped drapery as well as finite, crisp points that reached to the heavens.
As the reconstruction exercise demonstrated, the transformation of lightweight cotton into a sturdy, towering construction required a great deal of textural and structural manipulation. Such effort would have been greatly reduced if a naturally stiffer and more substantial linen had been used for instance.
Why was such a fine cotton muslin chosen for the construction of the Tächli-Tüchli? The answer could lie in its usage as a church-mandated garment. This diaphanous textile must have been chosen for its floaty, ethereal brilliance, and yet defied its own nature when formalised into a precise garment of solid proportions. In this way the Tächli-Tüchli must have appeared transcendental. Fine cotton was, moreover, a textile beginning to dominate domestic production. With these spiritual and communal associations, they achieved a pious aesthetic to characterise the shared morals and values of Zürich’s reformed society.