Must-have Norwich fashion that was fit for a Queen

PUBLISHED: 07:46 25 November 2017

An 1840s towler and campin handloom woven shawl in worsted and dyed in Norwich Red.

An 1840s towler and campin handloom woven shawl in worsted and dyed in Norwich Red.

Archant © 2006

In this archive EDP essay from 1967, Pamela Clabburn recalls the great days of the Norwich shawl.

To anyone born and bred in Norfolk the phrase “Norwich shawl” conjures up visions of enormous heavy silk oblongs very richly coloured, with possibly a plain crimson or white centre and a deep border of large Indian pines. But while this is the last and most effective type, which appeared about the middle of the 19th century, the story of Norwich-made shawls made in this city started much earlier in a very different style.

For over 100 years the shawl in one form or another was a very necessary part of every woman’s wardrobe, first in the late 18th century worn rather like the large silk squares we have known so well in the last 30 years, then as added warmth over very flimsy garments and lastly, in the 1850s and 60s, as the only type of garment (if ‘garment’ is the right word) which it was possible to wear over the enormous skirts.

Indian shawls had been imported into England for many years, and were very highly prized, as was the material from which they were made; but they were extremely expensive, as they were woven from the soft under-belly wool of the Kashmiri goat. Textile manufacturers in England spent much time and thought in trying to evolve an article on the lines of the Indian shawl which would be equally acceptable to women but very much cheaper. But from old notices in the Norwich Mercury it is quite obvious that “shawl” did not only mean “an article to wear round the shoulders.” It also referred to lengths of material. In 1792 there was an advertisement stating that William White and Charles Wright, “being connected in the manufacture of Norwich Shawls have always ready for inspection of the public a large general assortment of every article in that branch . . .viz. Shawl Cravats, Sashes, Waistcoat shapes, 6/4 square shawls,3/4 and 4/4 scarfs and Gown pieces in great variety.”

We first hear of locally-made shawls in 1791, “Norwich and other shawls, equal in beauty and wear to those imported from the East Indies”; but unfortunately none of these have survived, or if they have they have not been recognised for what they are. But we do read of them as being “cotton cloth, embroidered with worsted of various colours along the edges and at the corners,” which one can only suppose means embroidered and crewel wools such as had been used for all the crewel work hangings of the 17th and 18th centuries.

This was evidently done on a printed pattern by children, as in 1794 one of the illuminations in honour of Her Majesty’s Birthday was Knight’s Norwich Shawl Manufactory in the Strand — “In front of the house was formed a pyramid of lamps; at the windows were seen little children embroidering shawls under festoons of white and gold . . .”

In 1798 at the Thanksgiving for the Victory of the Nile Mr Boardman’s house in St. Peter Mancroft had as the theme of its illuminations two Norwich shawls inscribed “May Norwich Manufacturers Flourish” and “Nelson, Berry, Victory,” both of which sound remarkably dreary and can hardly have been meant to be worn by Mrs Boardman, one hopes!

Then came the breakthrough which made the Norwich shawl famous. A particular type of weaving was evolved called the fillover which meant, in effect, that instead of a design being embroidered on by hand it could be woven in, not in the same way that a pattern was woven in a brocade, but with small designs woven into plain material and the threads cut off, so that the back of the material looked not unlike the front.

This type of shawl was made in enormous quantities in spun silk, silk and wool mixed, and plain wool, and at last in 1806 an acceptable substitute for the fleece of the Kashmir goat was found in the fleece of Mr Coke’s Southdown sheep. Many different breeds of sheep had been tried, including Merino and Spanish Shearlings, but it seemed that Southdowns were the answer.

This fillover shawl carried the Norwich manufacturers on a wave of orders which lasted a good many years; in fact we are told of one manufacturer who produced 40,000 shawls in a year, and another who produced 60,000, though these numbers would seem to have a slight element of fantasy about them. However, in the early 1800s Mr Jacquard had invented his famous loom in France, and though at first, as with all new machinery, it was received with dislike everywhere, it began gradually to be accepted, especially in Scotland.

In Norwich, doing well as they were with their fillovers and printed shawls, they were late in starting to use the Jacquard, and so Paisley, who had never been slow to filch the best of our designs, got a head start, and with lower wages and a better economy gradually took away a considerable amount of the Norwich trade.

The filching of the designs was so resented in Norwich that the manufacturers spoke out strongly against it to the Commissioners who were investigating the plight of the hand loom weavers in 1839, with the result that in 1843 it was possible to register designs at the Patent Office. Now, through the generosity of Anglia TV, the Norwich Museums have been able to acquire photostat copies of 400 of these designs, in fact, all that were registered between 1843 and 1872, which naturally are of an enormous help in deciding which are Norwich and which Paisley shawls.

The trade was now at its height, and Norwich presented shawls to Queen Victoria and to Princess Alexandra on her marriage to the Prince of Wales, as it had to Queen Caroline many years before. But very soon this trade was to decline, largely because of fashion. The type of garment worn from the 1870s onwards needed some type of coat or mantle over it and not a shawl, and so, although there were still a few hand looms working and one at least till 1954, they produced squares and wrappers, ties and yardage and the beautiful Norwich shawl was made no more.

There are still a lot of gaps in the story, which can best be filled in by people who own indisputable Norwich shawls, or who know anything about the manufacturers; and if these people could take their shawls and their knowledge to Strangers Hall Museum so that all information could be pooled and sifted, perhaps we could at last begin to get a clear picture of one of the most beautiful and famous industries of this city.

Paisley, who had never been slow to filch the best of our designs, got a head start, and with lower wages and a better economy gradually took away a considerable amount of the Norwich trade.

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