Karl Friedrich  Gegauf

1860 —1926
1860 —1926

inventor and first manufacturer of hemstitch sewing machines

The ancestors of the BERNINA company founder Karl Friedrich Gegauf were originally from Baden-Württemberg. Some of them were in the service of the Princes of Hohenzollern and the Freiherr von Bodmann. Karl Friedrich's grandfather settled in 1803 in Wahlwies (Stockach), a small peasant village near Lake Constance on the German side. A year later his son Johann Georg was born. After his schooling, the intelligent Junior became a veterinarian with his own practice in the parental home. At all times there were political turmoil and economic unrest in the 19th century. The Badische Revolution also shocked the small village of Wahlwies in 1848. The convincing democrat and physician Johann Georg Gegauf, with his openly expressed conviction, stood in stark contrast to the rulers of the time. He was a German Freidenker or Freischärler, as they were then called, and as such  promoter of the Baden  Revolution that happen between the beginning of March 1848 and July 1849 to form a republic in southwestern Germany. This led him to be subjected to many reprisals and even to fear his life. He decided to flee to Switzerland, to his study friend Dr. med. Guntram Deucher in Steckborn, who hid him on the shores of the Untersee ( the smaller of the two lakes that together form Lake Constance and forms part of the boundary between Switzerland and Germany) for one or two years (not one does know exactly how long  Deucher hid him in Steckborn). During all this time, Anastasia Nägele, his bride, who had been left behind in Wahlwies, visited him once a month secretly at night in his hiding place. She rowed in a small boat every time from Gaienhofen (a small town on the german side ) across the Untersee to Steckborn to her beloved. In 1851, the state of war was ended and Dr. Gegauf was able to return to his homeland. Anastasia Nägele gave him five sons in the first years of her beautiful almost forty-year marriage. 

Karl Friedrich Gegauf, was born in 1860 in Wahlwies who is about 30 kilometers north of Steckborn. He was  exceptionally intelligent, he had inherited all the gifts of his parents. Even as a child, he already built all sorts of small machines. The father recognized the talents of his son  who did not want to become a doctor  and sent him to become a master of mechanics, which Karl Friedrich successfully completed. Karl Friedrich Gegauf completed a part of his education in Switzerland with the company Allschweiler in Radolfszell.

In 1879 Karl Friedrich Gegauf went to work in Switzerland and found a job as a mechanic at the embroidery machine factory Baum in Rorschach. On behalf of the company, he frequently went abroad, to Ireland, France, Italy, and North America, to those regions where, as in the canton of St. Gallen, the embroidery industry was at home.

Karl Friedrich Gegauf married Maria Troll from Schwarzach in Vorarlberg. The two moved to Tägerwilen.

Karl Friedrich Gegauf in the spare time designed his own special monogram-sticking machine, which could be mounted on existing embroidery machines, and thereby simplifying the processes and increasing the embroidery capacity.

At that time, it was generally customary and in fashion to embroider tablecloths and handkerchiefs, bedclothes underwear etc. with the initials (monogram) of the owner and decorate all kinds of textiles.

In 1886Karl Friedrich  Gegauf  experienced, as many inventors had, a bitter disappointment for the embroidery factories who did not want to know anything about his invention. 

In 1890 Karl Friedrich's father died. In the same year Karl Friedrich Gegauf set up an embroidery and mechanical workshop to produce the monogram embroidery machines he had invented  in the former Cistercian nunnery in Steckborn with 20 employees.. Together with his brother Georg Gegauf, Karl Friedrich Gegauf headed the company «Gebrüder Gegauf». 

A major embroidery company in St. Gallen, which had meanwhile converted a large number of embroidery machines for the Gegauf apparatus embroidery machine, presented the young inventor with the task to construct a sewing machine which hemstitches can be produced more quickly and cheaply.

On February 27, 1892, the Patent Office granted him patent No. 4670 for his invention, which triggered a textile revolution throughout the world.

In the spring of 1893, Karl Friedrich  Gegauf was able to present his first hemstitch sewing machine, which was at the same time the world's first, to a large number of embroidery manufacturers in St. Gallen, and the sewing machine manufacture began  in Steckborn.


Soon the successes which Karl Friedrich  Gegauf achieved with his apparatus were known in the Embassy in East Switzerland, and after he had achieved what he wanted, he sent for his own, now enlarged embroidery enterprise, and created a well-equipped mechanical workshop, in order to be able to supply the many embroidery manufacturers, who initially misunderstood and rejected his invention, with his monogram embroidery machine.

This new type of sewing machine, with two needles, each of which carried out a movement-similar to a zig-zag machine-and two boats, was of great interest and there were already orders from the foreign countries for the hemstitch sewing machine.

In 1895, after a great fire  which almost all the buildings of the former Cistercian nunnery went lost, only the prototype of the hemstitch sewing machine could be saved, Gegauf was compelled to reconstruct his scarcely begun sewing machine manufacture in a barn in Obertorstrasse in Steckborn . At  the turn of the century, the Gegauf Hemstitch sewing machines were known all over the world.

By 1900 a new factory was established and 70 to 80 people were employed in the workshop; it was a small factory, Karl Friedrich Gegauf was the technical director and his brother Georg Gegauf was in charge of the business interests.

On February 13, 1900 Karl Friedrich wife fell ill, and died , at the age of only 41 years.  Karl Friedrich married again with Maria Haug from the Black Forest. She was a loving "substitute" for the children and also supported her husband.

In March, 1907 Karl Friedrich Gegauf applied for naturalization for himself and his family in Switzerland after all these years. The naturalization of the family Gegauf was confirmed. Now they had become Swiss.

In the following years, Karl Friedrich Gegauf produced a lot of new machines and has been granted patents for this worldwide. 

In 1914 came, the first world war broke out and business connections with foreign partners in the belligerent countries almost ceased. Difficult times broke out.

In 1917 Georg Gegauf retreated on the frozen Untersee and during a skating he had an accident and died few days later. A new blow to Karl Friedrich, who lost not only his brother, but also his best business partner.

After the death of Georg, the family of the deceased did not want to participate any more. The company was renamed Gegauf & Co. , Karl Friedrich continued to work with his sons on new machines but 

In October 17, 1919 Fritz Gegauf ,  son of Karl Friedrich, born on 5 April 1893   founded his own company. (There were two companies in Steckborn for a while.)

On December 13, 1926 Karl Friedrich  Gegauf died with a stomach trouble, which he did not recover. He was one of the pioneers of the sewing machine industry. His name has become a concept and his inventions have attracted great attention all over the world. Each of the three sons remained associated with father's business in some branch.

Fritz Gegauf, who had inherited the father's abilities in all things, was also a genius inventor, designer, and entrepreneur of the first rank.

Ernst Gegauf became a mechanic and also worked in Bielefeld, Berlin and Frankfurt. He returned to Switzerland, where he was the representative of BERNINA in Amriswil until his death in 1966.

Gustav Gegauf , the youngest of the three brothers, was a skilled toolmaker with a diploma in trade. He also studied chemistry, mathematics and physics. From his residence in Constance, he returned to the company of his brother Fritz a few years later and took over the commercial management. 

Hilda Gegauf.