Großschönau – The Tiny Cloth-Making Giant

One of the best things about Görlitz is its proximity to so many “undiscovered” little local gems – whether they be historic castles, cute little villages, or beautiful churches. I’ve always enjoyed visiting and appreciating the lesser-known attractions in our region. And since traveling outside of our borders may sadly not be possible for a while due to the current situation with the pandemic, it makes charming little places like nearby Großschönau all the more appealing. This tiny Upper Lusatian “textile village” is also currently making headlines for something related to the troubling current events.

Großschönau is a small and picturesque town of around 5,800 people in Saxony, Germany and it shares a border with the Czech town Varnsdorf. Named for its location on a big, beautiful meadow (große schöne Aue), the Upper Lusatian town is about an hour drive away from Görlitz (47 km) and is also easily reachable by public transportation through connections in Zittau. Taking the bus from Zittau to Großschönau last year, I was transported back in time as we drove along curving narrow roads through rolling fields and little villages full of historic half-timber houses. I had read up about the town’s history with textiles before departing on my journey, but what I didn’t realize was just how gorgeous Großschönau would be.

The town lies at the foot of the highest mountain in the Zittau mountain range, the Lausche (793 m) and on the floodplain of the Mandau and Lausur rivers. In fact, the town suffered a great deal of damage during August of 2010 when heavy rainfall caused the rivers to flood. Although this caused a great deal of destruction & loss of property, one can barely see the signs of this damage when walking through the historic center of the town as it has all been nicely repaired.

The first mention of Großschönau in historical documents was in 1352 and it was founded as a blacksmith’s village but soon became world-renowned for damask and linen weaving. It all began in 1666 when the Zittau council sent two linen weavers, the brothers Lange, to Holland so that they could learn the art of damask and linen weaving and bring it back to the region. This industrial espionage was successful, as the two brought back with them the knowledge they had gained. The skills they had learned needed to be protected and so there were very strict rules for the weavers about leaving town or meeting with outsiders.  These cloths and the knowledge of the weavers were jealously guarded just as Meissen guarded their “white gold” porcelain.

Damask weaving, which took a great deal of time and effort to produce, is characterized by its beautiful and complex designs woven into the often single-color fabric by contrasting the weaving patterns. The small town of Großschönau became the center for artful design and technical perfection in damask weaving and their cloths were coveted by the elite. Unless you had money to spend on table cloths that were as costly as gold or silver, as an average person you would probably never lay eyes on some of these exquisite pieces. It’s lucky for us that today you can see over 600 examples of these beautiful works of art and skill in the German Damask and Terry Museum in Großschönau.

The museum is housed in the Kupferhaus (copper house) built in 1809. Named for its copper roof, the building was home to the damask manufacturer Christian David Waentig. This small but fine museum in Großschönau is home to, not only an extensive collection of historic woven cloths and designs, but also to many historic weaving machines, like the Jacquard machine which revolutionized the way cloth was made in 1804. The Jacquard technique simplified the weaving process by controlling the loom with a chain of cards with holes punched into them. This invention turned out to be not only revolutionary for the weaving industry but for computing as well.

Although there are much fewer people now employed in cloth-making in Großschönau than in former times, the textile industry continues to shape the economic structure of the community. Today there are two companies which sell their cloths worldwide: Damino GmbH and Frottana Textil & Co, the former of which produces damask cloth in the form of table linens and sheets that are used frequently in hotels and on cruise ships and even damask clothing that are very popular with consumers in Africa. While visiting the town you can stop at the Damino outlet store and purchase a piece of the legacy of this town to adorn your own table at home.

Today the cloth-producing company Damino is making headlines for switching its production in the last weeks to producing masks. The clinics in the area, as in others all around the world, are preparing themselves for difficult times and PPE (personal protective equipment) such as masks are in alarmingly short supply. Three weeks ago the company switched its production from their typical textile and damask cloths to producing the masks. In addition to ten to twelve employees producing in Großschönau, their factory in nearby Frydlant in Czech Republic is also turning out 9000 masks a day. On the advice of the medical professionals, the cloth masks are sewn in double layers. Since the switch, the company has been receiving almost constant orders for the masks – from as far away as Münster and Switzerland. The work is welcome in a time when most normal factory productions had come to a standstill and a majority of the workers put on reduced working hours. Though not ideal, given the present shortage of medical-grade protective gear, these cloth masks may be the best option.

The most remarkable thing about Großschönau, besides its history of cloth-making, are its many half-timber houses (Umgebindehäuser). Dating back to the 17th to 19th centuries, these buildings are typical to the Upper Lusatian area and are characterized by their distinct architecture – a supporting wood frame with vertical and horizontal beams embraces the ground floor, and the upper floor rests on this frame. I found myself getting lost down various streets in the historic center of Großschönau, wanting to see all of these unique houses that have been so lovingly restored. Many of them also have slate tiles on the sides in varying patterns, which to me resemble the scales of a fish.

While visiting Großschönau, whether you choose to explore it by foot or by bicycle, make sure to get lost along its curving little streets full of charming houses and to cross the numerous pedestrian bridges that cross the Mandau. While wandering, one should also take the opportunity to follow a path up the Hutberg mountain (371 m) for a view of the town from above and the Zittau mountains in the distance.

Although it’s a small town, Großschönau is brimming with beauty, charm and history and an important reminder to us explorers that veering off the well-traveled tourist path can pay off with some unique and memorable discoveries!