For centuries, flax has been cultivated in the Dutch region of ‘Achterhoek’ and its German neighbour ‘Westphalia’. On the farms, linen was woven from it. Several farm and road names still refer to these home weavers. A lively trade in woven goods arose between weavers and traders on both sides of the border.
The emerging textile industry picked up on this ancient tradition of home craft. When at the beginning of the 19th century import duties were increased, German textile companies decided to settle in the Achterhoek. The companies ‘Gebrüder Driessen’ and ‘Peter Driessen & Sohn’ came from Bocholt to Aalten, marking the beginning of a thriving textile industry in the village.
Over a period of over 140 years (1826-1969) the manufacturers Driessen became the most important employers in Aalten. For generations, men, women and children from the same families have worked in these companies. The factory buildings and private houses of the Driessens were iconic in the village. The manufacturers made a significant mark on the social and economic life of Aalten until the second half of the 20th century.
The Driessen Brothers
Around 1817, brothers Anton and Joseph Driessen establish the company ‘Gebrüder Driessen’ in Bocholt. They dealt mainly in bombasine, a fabric of linen and cotton, which they exported to the Netherlands. This lucrative trade was threatened by the increased import duties. To avoid the high tolls, they asked the Dutch king permission to open an office in Aalten. This request was granted and in 1826 Anton Driessen came to Aalten, while his brother continued the company in Bocholt.
Anton established a hand spinning mill in Aalten for the many home weavers, as well as bleaching works and he had a large house built with outbuildings. Over the years, Anton’s bombasine business developed into a steam-driven spinning mill that later expanded to include mechanical looms. In 1918 Anton’s grandson Theodoor sold the company to investors. In 1960 the company was taken over by Wisselink’s Textielfabrieken. In 2002 the factory in Aalten was closed and turned into German hands, returning the company to its origins.
Peter Driessen & Son
Soon after Anton, nephew Heinrich Driessen also came from Bocholt to Aalten. He set up a branch here of his father Peter Driessen’s bombasine trade and hand spinning mill. Heinrich already owned the required land in Aalten and Varsseveld and in 1826 he expanded his operations with a spinning mill in Groenlo. In 1832 Heinrich employed about 500 linen weavers in and around Aalten. Three years later he was one of the largest bombasine manufacturers of the eastern Netherlands.
Heinrich Driessen was not only successful but innovative as well, as evidenced by his contact with Thomas Ainsworth. The English textile technician played an important role in the introduction of the steam engine and mechanized production in the textile industry in Twente and the Achterhoek. He was also involved in the founding of Heinrich’s steam bleaching works in the hamlet of Dale near Aalten in 1832, the first in eastern Gelderland. In 1849 Heinrich established the first steam spinning mill in Aalten, which was later expanded with steam-powered looms. When that burned down ten years later, he didn’t rebuild the factory but shifted his attention to Leiden, where he bought a textile printing and dyeing company.
Traces of the textile industry in Aalten
In 1893 Herman Driessen retired from the board of ‘Gebroeders Driessen’. Together with his son Joseph he then founded a modern steam weaving mill with 34 looms on the Hofstraat: ‘NV Stoomweverij Herman Driessen & Zoon’ (HDZ). The production of HDZ included knitwear such as underwear, gymnastics clothes, sweaters and home textiles such as table cloths, napkins, all kinds of towels and dish cloths, bed sheets and pillowcases, fitted with decorative edges or woven names of companies as the Holland-America Line and Nedlloyd. The large plume of smoke from the factory chimney and the sound of the steam whistle were part of everyday life in Aalten.
However, there would come an end to the flourishing of the textile industry, which had dominated the economic activity of the eastern Achterhoek for such a long time. Before 1930, textiles accounted for 45% of total industrial production. After 1950, that percentage would rapidly fall. The end for the weaving- and knitwear industry came in the 1960s, as a result of increasing foreign competition and the rise of mass production and confection. In 1969 HDZ had to close the gates. Fortunately the factory on the Hofstraat has been preserved and has been given a new destination after a restoration in 2015.