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The spinner’s club

By spinning wool, sewing mattresses and making shoes, the lives of these women are good and getting better as they create their own jobs and secure their future. And its all thanks to an initiative called “Bergauf.”

While human hair has proven to be less ideal for spinning, sheep’s wool is the perfect fiber. Nevertheless, 100 tonnes of wool are thrown into the garbage in South Tyrol every year. But not in the Ultental valley. Here, on a scenic farm, a handful of women make mattresses, jackets, and even shoes from this valuable raw material. In doing so, several threads come together to form a more cohesive whole...

The road winds steeply upward from Lana in the Etschtal valley to the Ultental valley above. The route passes old farms and the Schloss Eschenlohe castle like some picture-perfect postcard. It is breathtakingly beautiful here. But it is also far from the cities of Meran/Merano and Bolzano/Bozen. “Unfortunately, a lot of young people leave the valley to find work, and they never come back," says Dorothea Egger. The 48-year-old never wanted to leave her valley, in part because she has three school-age children, but also because it is her home. Her sister Klara, 50, felt the same way. The problem was finding enough work.

Waltraud’s feeling for the future of wool

Without Waltraud Schwienbacher, this story could have ended here. For decades, the 71-year-old farmer “Traudl” Schwienbacher has been fighting against the exodus from her valley. In 1993, she founded the Winterschule agricultural school in St. Walburg/S.Valburga. Here, course participants learn weaving, felting, lace-making and much more. In reality, they learn old crafts that are no longer on the curriculum in any school and would be forgotten in time. These days, Waltraud Schwienbacher is very well known in South Tyrol. And for good reason. It all comes down to her unwavering way of fighting for the things that are close to her heart.

From slippers to mattresses and placemats... the ladies can do it all

Klara and Dorothea Egger have reaped the benefits. Schwienbacher's commitment to offering the people of the Ultental valley future prospects is also the basis for her job. Four years ago, the 71-year-old founded the social cooperative "Lebenswertes Ulten" and brought Dorothea and Klara Egger on board.

The women agreed to process the wool of Ulten's mountain sheep at the Schmiedhof in St. Walburg. They named their wool factory, where fine slippers, table sets, carpets, mattresses, clothes and much more are produced, “Bergauf,” which in this context means “improvement.” "We urgently need to create new jobs, otherwise our villages will die out," says Klara Egger.

Learning to value homegrown resources once again

Schwienbacher may seem a bit dated with her grey-white hair tied into a bun at the nape of her neck and her loose, flowing dresses, but her ideas are ahead of the times. Long before South Tyrolean entrepreneurs started considering how to utilise wool, she understood that the Ultental valley had to reflect on its resources. "We have forest, water and wool," she says. Initially, that sounds like a solid start. Nevertheless, for a long time, locals didn’t know what to do with these resources.

How can a scratchy sweater make you happy?

There is one statistic that the do-it-yourselfers can only shake their heads at. According to estimates, about 100 tons of wool are thrown away every year in South Tyrol. For the group of women, however, there is no more valuable raw material and none that is as deeply connected to the Ultental valley. Wool is warm, durable, and not synthetic. "Wool contains water and oxygen, sulfur and many other elements that are good for the body. People who surround themselves with wool a lot are more balanced and communicative," says Schwienbacher.

In the Ultental valley, wool is also good for the soul. The farmers deliver the wool to the wool mill now instead of to the rubbish dump. Klara and Dorothea spend a part of every day in the shop, which is also their workshop and has become like a second home to them. And they are no longer alone. Martina, 50, makes the mattresses, Cornelia, 30, takes care of the administration, Juliane, 20, lends a hand everywhere. Waltraud Schwienbacher works voluntarily for Bergauf and often likes to drop by. So what would these women do if the Bergauf project didn't exist? That is unimaginable.

Wearable carpet: Alexandra Stelzer designs a poncho

Sitting together in a corner on felted cushions in the Schmiedhof, the women are bursting with energy. Together, they have many ideas. South Tyrolean designer Alexandra Stelzer has designed a poncho for Bergauf. Meanwhile, several hotels and a small organic shop in Lana sell the woolen manufacturer's products. This also includes the sheep's wool bath they have developed, which utilises four metres of wool and Alpine herbs. No strand of wool goes to waste. Martina sews the scraps together into rugs, each is one of a kind. Today they fondly recall their beginnings. Getting started was hard work. It took time until the first machines arrived to process the wool. The two green, old machines, made by the Trützschler-Hergeth-Sächs.Textilmaschinenfabrik company, still perform well despite their age. They tear the wool, then convey it over rollers before it is carded and felted dry. In the past, when they stuttered, stalled or came to a standstill, the technician would often come. These days, Klara and Dorothea usually repair the machines themselves.

Bergauf's example shows what the commitment of individuals can achieve. Visitors now arrive from all over the world to get to learn more about the project. Lost in thought, Dorothea Egger takes a piece of felt in her hand. The wool comes from Ulten sheep, of course. Locally sourced materials not only sound good, they feel good too.

Text: Verena Duregger
Photos: Alex Filz
Video: Alexander Schiebel
Year of publication: 2016 - Stories from South Tyrol