Those in the know would recognise the ‘boteh’, a tear-drop motif with a name which was inspired by the territories which bordered Kashmir. It was where shawls were made from the fine, under belly fleece of Tibetan goats. These Kashmir shawls became very fashionable in 18th century Britain, but they were very expensive. It was the sight of these shawls which inspired Britain and France to produce cheaper alternatives of their own. Ironically, within one-hundred years, shawls produced in Kashmir were influenced by European designs.
The Kashmir ‘boteh’ pattern was developed from an image of a vase, or bunch, of flowers with tightly packed heads bending at the top and forming the familiar decorated pinecone shape that we all recognise. For many-a-year, fabrics woven with a series of these tear-drop motifs were known as ‘Paisley’, the name of the Scottish town which used the design to decorate its shawls in the early nineteenth century. However, the town of Paisley was not the first British town to produce shawls decorated in this way. The fact of the matter was that the city of Norwich, in Norfolk, had been using a very similar pattern on the borders of their shawls ever since the latter part of the 18th-century.
(Gladstone House, 28 St Giles, Norwich. Former home of John Harvey).
It was John Harvey (1755-1842) who was credited with introducing shawl weaving to Norwich in 1791. He was a person of some standing in the city, becoming Sheriff in 1784, Mayor in 1792, High Sheriff of Norfolk in 1825 and, as an aside, was also credited for reviving horse racing on Mousehold Heath, on the outskirts of Norwich. Harvey also became associated with Norwich citizen Philip Knights. In 1794, it was Knights, Shawlman to Her Majesty, who mounted an exhibition in his London showroom at 136 Bond Street to honour Her Majesty’s birthday. There, at the windows of the showroom, little children could be seen embroidering Norwich shawls.
By the nineteenth century, Norwich had at least twenty shawl manufacturers, and the number grew. It has been said that in the 19th century, successfull manufacturers of Norwich shawls included Towler and Campin, Clabburn, Sons & Crisp, Edward Blakely, Willett & Nephew, and Bolingbroke & Jones. These, along with others, made the best use of the Jacquard Loom, which was developed in 1804 and worked on the basis of using perforated pattern cards.
Joseph-Marie Jacquard – the developer:
To be clear, Joseph-Marie Jacquard was not the inventor of what could be termed, the ‘programmable’ loom – as many people imagine. Actually, he created an attachment to the loom, which played a very important role not only in the textile industry, but also in the future development of other programmable machines, such as computers. In other word’s, Jacquard’s genius did not lay in originating the revolutionary ideas behind his loom, but in building upon the work of previous innovators, bringing their ideas together, adding his own insights, and solving a variety of practical engineering problems, to create an automatic loom that was fast, reliable and most importantly—commercially viable. The Jacquard loom revolutionized the speed at which decorated fabrics could be woven. Using the Jacquard loom, a skilled weaver could produce two feet of decorated silk fabric per day, compared with one inch per day that could be produced by a skilled two-man draw loom team.
As far as the Norwich weaving companies were concerned, the development of the Jacquard Loom allowed for ever more complex patterns to emerge, eventually covering most of their shawls rather than stopping at the borders. However, even though they could copy the ‘boteh’ designs, they found it difficult to reproduce the soft feel of the high-quality woollen shawls from Kashmir. Fortunately, Norwich, with its long experience of weaving fine quality, lightweight fabrics, came up with a combination of silk and ‘worsted’ wool; the result was a warm and strong fabric with a soft feel.
Continuing success seemed assured but it did not come without one inevitable offshoot. Norwich manufacturers became dismayed by towns, such as Paisley, copying the Norwich pattern and flooding the market; by doing this, the exclusivity of the design was watered down. Only Government legislation could help, but it was not until 1842, when it became possible to register a design at the Patent Office for one shilling; however, this protection was limited to between six and twelve months from registration. Most Norwich companies thought this to be a waste of time and effort and, in fact, only seven manufacturers bothered to take the opportunity to protect their patterns against what they thought to be piracy.
But it seemed as if there was ‘something for everyone’; certainly in Norwich from the turn of the 18th century, some companies were receiving orders for up to 42,000 shawls. Inevitably perhaps, this spawned the desire of the workers to have a share of this prosperity and it seems that, in some parts of the trade at least, there was a degree of ‘reward’ handed out (if one ignored the long hours), for wages in the trade were good for that period; Mr Marten, a visitor to the City in 1825 recalled:
“We then walked about the large city & came by St Giles Church into Heigham, and called on Mr Grout who permitted us to go through his important Silk Manufactory. The works are in several floors and the winding twisting bobbins are by machinery moved by a beautiful 20-horsepower engine. These operations are watched and conducted by more than seventy females, some so young as 7 to 8 years of age. These are on foot from seven in the morning till eight in the evening watching the threads, repairing the broken & seeing that all go on well – occasionally supplying oil where wanted to prevent evil from friction. Only that they have half an hour to breakfast & an hour for dinner. And these little girls earn some 5 shillings, some 5 shillings/6d a week.”
By way of description – Norwich shawls were long, narrow and square with woven borders which featured the ‘boteh’ motif and a plain central area or one sprigged with tiny flowers. Other shawls were fringed and contained varying sized ‘boteh’ which sometimes crossed each other and completely covered the background. Even full dresses of this period, showed off these designs with shawls at their peak of fashion. The most beautiful of Norwich shawls were produced between 1830 and 1850 and one of the companies in the forefront of high-quality production was Towler & Campin. Others were not far behind and, because of the competition, every manufacturer had to employ what today may be thought of as a ‘stylish’ selling approach, certainly on those who had the most money to spend on ‘luxuries’. One such company was that of Edward Blakeley; the following report appearing in the Norwich Mercury on the 5 March 1831:
“Her Most Gracious Majesty the Queen and HRH the Duke of Sussex having condescended to patronise the manufacturer of Norwich shawls, Edward Blakely begs most respectfully to inform the Nobility and ladies that he will have ready for inspection, on Tuesday 15th inst, a splendid assortment of the same description of shawls which Her Majesty has been pleased to select”.
In 1848, an employee of Edward Blakely, a certain William Piper, went to London and obtained an introduction from the Countess Spencer to the Queen and was able to secure ‘sales of Norwich shawls with Her Majesty, the Queen Dowager, the Duchess of Kent and many members of the aristocracy’. In 1851, Edward Blakely took the opportunity to display his shawls at the Great Exhibition, showing Anglo-Indian scarves, shawls, dresses and brocades. He was rewarded with two orders for shawls ‘made in the pure Indian style’ from Her Majesty, Queen Victoria. It was by 1851 when ‘printed’ shawls also came on to the market with many being dyed with a colour identified as ‘Norwich Red’. These shawls were designed to cover crinolines and were over six feet square, or a twelve-foot rectangle and sometimes five feet in length, again filled with boteh and filled with flowers. The Great Exhibition of 1851 gave Norwich the chance to show off this development.
(Norwich shawl patterns, as displayed at the 1851 Great Exhibition)
There had always been a problem wearing a shawl which had a right and a wrong side. Kashmir shawls overcame the difficulty by sewing two together but this was not suitable for the heavier European shawls. However, in 1854 Clabburn, Sons and Crisp successfully produced a reversible shawl. Their shawls were the most intricate, woven from silk using the Jacquard loom. The pine cone shape became elongated, resembling the handles of a pair of scissors and scrolled from the border boteh to the centre of the shawl, where there may or may not have been have been a plain central eye. Zebra shawls featured lines of complex patterns scattered throughout with tiny pine cone motifs. However, as the crinoline, so well suited for supporting a heavy shawl fell out of fashion, the shawl was superseded by a short jacket or cape. The shawl once epitomising elegance and gentility, was now identified with the frail and dispossessed and by the 1870s the heyday of the shawl in Norwich, as in other European towns, was over.
The Shawl in Norwich today:
Norwich Museum Service remains the custodian of what remains of original Norwich shawls and Carrow House in King Street Norwich, which was once home to the Service, held its collection there until 2011. At that time, there were over 100 Norwich shawls in the collection and around 500 shawls of other types. The Norwich examples were credited to the companies that made them and where possible, a provenance was given, so it was possible to get a good sense of the shawl’s place in the history of costume, the contribution Norwich made to the shawls’ production – and made visitors realise the sheer variety of what was termed as the paisley pattern.
One may well wonder what the current value of original Norwich Shawls would be? – and certainly, it remains difficult to positively attribute any such shawl to the city. Many textile specialists have, in the past, listed them as European – or possibly Norwich. However, in the early years of the Second Millennium, the price of shawls at London auction houses and identified as Norwich fell. Immediately prior to this period, Phillips offered a good selection of Norwich shawls. In 1996 they sold a number of Norwich shawls for between £320 and £460; then, in May 1999 two Norwich shawls were sold by them for £280 and £300; on the other hand two, with an estimate of £250-£300 failed to sell. Later the same year they offered almost a dozen Norwich shawls and although two were sold for around £400, nearly half with an estimate of £200-220 remained unsold. Others went for £130, £220 and £300. Also, in 1999, Sotheby s sold one lot containing two printed Norwich shawls for £207. In October 2000, Christies sold a shawl possibly Norwich for £235. A month earlier, Phillips had sold one for £138.
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2 thoughts on “Norwich Shawls: Once Ahead of the Game!”
An extremely interesting article and fascinating. I haven’t looked through the links yet but I didn’t realise we were so involved pre Industrial revolution and during. With the exception of Worsted, I thought Norwich was mostly Leather, especially shoes.
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Thank you Abbi – much appreciated. I have always thought that Norwich was more than one thing, product, skill etc., from weaving through to brewing, insurance, shoe making, confectionery, mustard, art – and canary breeding!