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The height of fashion in the Swiss Alps

The "Swiss Army Recycling Collection".

In the tiny village of Törbel in canton Valais, a booming cottage industry is churning out fashionable accessories against a backdrop of snowy peaks.

Törbel is home to the unique and trendy “Swiss Army Recycling Collection” – an ensemble of bags, key rings and rucksacks made from old Swiss Army blankets

In a tucked-away workshop six local women buzz away at sewing machines, producing the distinctive brown-grey designs with a red stripe and a white Swiss cross.

The collection is the brainchild of the freelance designer, Walter Maurer, who has spent more than 30 years as a “funky” ethnic designer.

Army Blankets

After discovering that the Swiss army had stockpiles of unused blankets left over from their switch to sleeping bags in the sixties, he quickly started incorporating the material into his work.

“They have tons of them in big holes in the mountains” he explains. “They were produced in case of war and we never had a war, so now they’re old but never used. “

The wool is fairly coarse, which makes it ideal for heavy-duty bags and the design has proved to be a firm favourite with the younger generation. But the pocket money has to stretch a long way with the larger bags costing up to SFr200 ($119) and a make-up bag easily fetching SFr 50 ($30).

The collection is sold in what Maurer terms the “in” shops in cities all over the world, with stockists as far a field as Tokyo.

“The techno generation buys this stuff,” he muses. “I’m always happy when I see them walking around with their bags.”

But the trendy “clubbing” audience would probably never imagine where the bags come from.

Sleepy village

Törbel is a sleepy village, far removed from the hustle and bustle of city life and at first sight the workshop’s location seems completely incongruous.

The mini-factory is, however, a joint venture between Maurer and Törbel’s resident cobbler, Titus Karlen.

Karlen, who has lived in the alpine village all his life, used to make rucksacks for the Swiss army, but as a result of army cutbacks, his orders have dramatically decreased.

“I had to look for new ways to get business to make sure my work shop survived,” he says.” In the mountain villages we need work. I still make things for the Swiss Army but not as many as before.”

“The Swiss Army Recycling collection” turned out to be the silver lining he was searching for and for the past couple of years him and Maurer have enjoyed a fruitful partnership.

Standard Army issue

Apart from the zips and fasteners, everything that goes into the items is ex-army standard issue. The straps are disused gun leashes, softened and flattened by a special machine and soldier’s belts act as seam strengtheners.

The workshop is a hive of activity and buzzes with the sounds of sewing machines, hole punchers, zips and leather softening machines.

The collection has proved so popular that plans are afoot to move to bigger premises.

But for the moment at least the small team continue to work flat out to meet the increasing demand.

by Sally Mules

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR