On an elevated plateau between Austria’s Dachstein mountain range and Enns valley stands the Lodenwalker factory. Inside are 35 artisans carrying on the work that began there in 1434, making an especially durable wool fabric called loden.
The building has been completely destroyed by floods and rebuilt five times. It has endured through the ages and maintained ancient techniques that have fallen into disuse elsewhere. Some of its machinery is centuries old.
“I believe that honest work is the key to keep a business over such a long period of time,” said Jörg Steiner, the current owner. His family has run the business for 15 generations. Before that, it was owned by various farming families in the small town of Ramsau am Dachstein (current population about 2,000).
Honest work means “a fair and sustainable approach for people, animals, and the environment, [and] no unnecessary or compulsive growth,” he said.
Lodenwalker has always been energy self-sufficient, drawing on local hydropower to run machinery that entered the factory in the 19th century. Its traditional methods of craftsmanship also require less energy. For example, instead of using tumble dryers as many textile factories do today, Lodenwalker workers hang huge swaths of cloth out to air dry.
“It almost looks like a giant clothesline,” Steiner said of the 65-yard-long wooden structures outside the factory.
Lodenwalker doesn’t use chemical waterproofing like many textile producers. The process of fulling, or walken in German, makes the wool durable and water-resistant. The cloth is hammered in warm water, causing it to compact to 40 percent its original size.
“This ancient working technique makes our fabric into loden,” Steiner said. Loden is the material of the region’s traditional garb, and is so durable that garments often last decades. “The looks change from year to year or from century to century,” Steiner said, though the fabric remains the same.
“Fulling is something you do by instinct,” he said. The artisan feels the impact to the wool, shaping and crafting it. Though fulling fell out of practice widely during the Industrial Revolution, this hand-crafting process remains important at Lodenwalker.
Steiner emphasized the importance of also keeping the business in hand—keeping it simple and steady without compulsive expansion. Lodenwalker doesn’t distribute to other companies, but rather maintains direct contact with its customers. One modern boost to business is online sales, which have opened the market worldwide
The factory is open to visitors and Steiner loves having customers come to understand the care that goes into each piece.
“The textile industry in fast-moving times like nowadays is all but healthy and sustainable,” Steiner said. Lodenwalker’s motto is, “Wool takes time.”
It takes about three months to produce a meter of finished wool starting from the raw material, he said. Then the wool is shaped into garments.
‘Wool Takes Time’
The hardy mountain sheep of the region provide the wool, though some suits and overcoats are made from Australian merino wool. A benefit of virgin wool is that it is a renewable resource, unlike petroleum-based synthetic fibers.
The wool goes through a carding machine, a 19th century addition to the factory. Cylinders covered with needles comb the wool. It then goes through the spinning and weaving machines, which entered the factory not long after the carding machine.
The wool is spun into threads, thousands of which are placed on the loom and woven into various patterns, such as a twill weave that creates a pattern of diagonal ribs.
“Weaving is a technique where you need to calculate and work very precisely,” Steiner said, contrasting it with the more instinctual process of fulling. Steiner’s education at a textile college focused on weaving. But, he said, “I’ve gained the real know-how from experience by skilled employees. Therefore, it’s important to pass down the knowledge from generation to generation.”
Many of the workers at Lodenwalker have, like Steiner, carried on the tradition of loden-making from their ancestors. “When I took over in 2006, many employees had known me from childhood. I always felt as a member of a large family. This is also the way our employees were treated, and I try to keep it this way,” he said.
After weaving, the cloth is spread over a light-table where workers patiently check the quality and fix any imperfections by hand. Then comes fulling, dying, and drying.
The final step is finishing, part of which is napping, or running thistles over the fabric to sort of fluff it up and make it soft. Steiner swears by natural thistles instead of synthetic brushes for napping.
“Thanks to this old technique our pure new wool blankets are napped in a very gentle way. This method helps to avoid electrostatic charging and fibers to pull out,” Steiner said.
Of the whole production process, he said: “One step leads to another like in a clockwork. If one small thing doesn’t work properly in a single step, it will affect the whole process. What’s important to us is time, we produce ‘slowly’ on purpose.”
Time seems to have moved slowly in Lodenwalker, though it hasn’t stayed still. The loden fabric is much the same as it was six centuries ago, though the style of garb has changed. A few machines have entered the factory, though they are themselves now antiques.
Since Steiner took the reins at the age of 25 in 2006, there have been some ups and downs though nothing on the scale of the destructive floods his forebears had to cope with.
“There are always challenges, such as finding suitable personnel or keeping the old machines up and running. Even the pandemic confronted us with entirely new challenges. But overall, I’d say I’m quite lucky, because we’re living in a time where our philosophy and products fit in perfectly.”
His 13-year-old son is interested in continuing the family’s vocation, though Steiner said he won’t pressure the boy if he chooses another path. Steiner’s path was always clear to him, and he has drawn strength and wisdom from the guidance of his parents and support of his wife.
“The most important key lesson from my parents and ancestors was and still is to stay true to oneself and the business,” Steiner said.