Norwich Shawls: Past glory, present inspiration – 14 October 2016

14 October 2016



The exhibition of C19th Norwich shawls and contemporary work produced in response to them was curated by the Costume and Textile Associate, Norfolk, and held 1-15th October 2016 at the Norwich Cathedral hostry.

I was lucky to be able to visit with a fellow OCA student whom I met through our local support group “East Anglia Extreme”. I find it extremely helpful to be able to discuss the attributes and merits of exhibits with my peers; especially with students of different creative disciplines who bring fresh perspectives.

Photograph of the exhibits were not allowed, but I was able to take photographs of two of the “handling pieces” (fragments of original Norwich shawls).


These photographs give an indication of the complexity, craftsmanship and beauty of these textiles pieces. The fabric fragment on the left is from a Norwich shawl woven on a Jacquard loom in the 1860s. The photograph on the right is of a Hind’s silk “wrapper” (a long thin shawl similar to a modern day scarf) dating from the 1880s-1890s (design attributed to Obadiah Short).


In Elizabethan times, skilled foreign weavers were invited to Norwich to establish a textile industry, and from then onwards Norwich grew in it’s reputation to produce high quality, distinctive textiles (Priestley, 1995:1-9). When shawls became fashionable in the 1800’s, Norwich was ideally placed to satisfy demand for high quality products (Hoyte, 2016:23). Quality shawls were woven and printed for an elite clientele, confirming their wealth and status in society. Over years of catering for an exclusive market, Norwich shawls developed a distinctive character (patterning and colour) which became known as the “Norwich shawl” (Hoyte, 2016:35).


A discussion of some exhibits from the exhibition:

Zebra shawl:

One of the first shawls which caught my attention was exhibit no. 7, the “Zebra Shawl” (340x167cm). Jacquard woven silk, manufactured 1860’s by Clabburn Sons & Crisp, the shawl currently resides in the private collection of one of the members of the Costume and Textile Association.

I had previously shied away from such detailed patterns, finding them impossible to sketch. However, I took inspiration from the sketchbooks of Zandra Rhodes (Rhodes, 2005:20), who seems to be an expert when it comes to capturing the essence of complicated designs and translating these into glorious textile designs of her own. Below is an excerpt from my sketchbook showing an overview of the pattern layout and an area of the pattern in detail.

An exquisitely crafted item, the shawl incorporates both plain and patterned stripes known as “Clabburn Zebras” and was made for daily wear (Hoyte, 2016:9). It is typical of the design of Clabburn Sons & Crisp (Clabburn, 1995:94,95,98). 

The weave is extremely fine and the patterning unbelievably detailed, considering that each colour element/thread would have been drawn up on punched pattern cards to be fed into the loom to replicate the design. It can be seen from the fringes of these shawls that each thread is no thicker than a human hair.  It was the black, pink, mauve, aubergine and green colour scheme which initially appealed to me, but I also like the fact that there is space in the design (i.e. the plain black stripes). It perhaps appeals to my modern taste that the design feels less cluttered than some of the overall patterns. Looking at the design I can see elements of the pattern which I might pick out and adapt for use in my own practice. 

This shawl would have been made towards the end of the period when these garments were fashionable. The way shawls were worn evolved throughout the 1800’s and developed in line with the size of the crinolines which they laid over. By the mid-late 1800’s they were designed to be folded into a triangle, and draped so that the folded edge formed a type of collar, or drape around the neck. The exhibition showed examples of shawls hung around mannequins in this way, so that it was possible to see how the patterns were intended to be viewed when worn. It reminded me again very much of Zandra Rhodes who designs her garments to suit the patterning on her fabrics, often incorporating circular, or border motifs (Rhodes, 2005).


Scissors design shawl:

The scissors design shawl (exhibit no. 3) was manufactured by Clabburn Sons & Crisp in 1862. Designed by John Funnel, it is also a Jacquard woven silk. Measuring 347x 103cm, it resides in a private collection and was loaned to the exhibition (Hoyte, 2016:7). According to Hoyte, Funnel designed exclusively for Clabburn Sons & Crisp, and a shawl exactly like this was the manufacturer’s entry for the Paris Exposition of 1862, anticipating the coming Art Nouveau movement of the 1890’s (Hoyte, 2016:7). This shawl would have retailed for around £20 (equivalent of at least £1,600 in todays money), which indicates the exclusivity and status of owning such a fine garment (Hoyte, 2016:6). My sketch of part of the shawl pattern detail is shown below:

This shawl is predominantly beige and gold in colour with small areas of emerald green, sky blue and red. Black was used to emphasis the boarder between two areas of design, and to delimit some of the pattern edges. Interestingly, this shawl features a development of the “boteh” or “Paisley” design which originated for India and Persia in the C16th. In Norwich, the design was also known as the “Pine”. Variations in the development of the boteh can be used help to date textiles (Hoyte, 2016:36). Like the Zebra shawl, the Scissors design shawl was of exceptional quality (especially so, as it was designed to showcase the manufacturer’s product at an international exhibition). Considering my own practice, there are once again elements of the pattern and colour which I could consider using. 


Pattern study by Susan Rhodes:

I was interested in this piece because it is a contemporary textile work produced in direct response to the Scissor design shawl. I have only been able to include a sketch, however a photograph of the work can be viewed in the exhibition catalogue (Costume and Textile Association, 2016:26). The piece measures 59.4x42x3cm and is made from cotton fabric, cotton and silk threads, wadding and card.


The piece is mounted on an airforce blue background and consists of a large rectangle of loom pattern punchcards stitched in horizontal rows. I’m not sure whether these are original (probably not?). The material they are made from looks like a type of plasticised card and they are beige in colour. The holes are brown around the edges, showing signs of having been made by burning through the material. 

The rectangle boteh motif on the bottom right looks has if it has been taken directly from a scanned image of a photograph of part of the scissor shawl and digitally printed onto fabric before being cut out, appliquéd onto a dark background and enhanced with stitching to emphasis certain areas of the pattern. The colours appear washed out and pinkish purple and blue, rather than the vibrant gold, beige, red, blue and green of the original motif. Around the edge of the boteh, some text pertaining to the weaving industry has been printed digitally onto fabric, cut out and appliquéd onto the background.

I have to admit choosing to review this piece because I do not like it. The artist cites contrast as one of the inspirations (Hoyte, 2016:26). However, I find that there is too much contrast between the area with the punchcards (which is clumsy, plain and light-coloured) and the appliquéd section (which is dark and finely detailed). It leaves me feeling that the punchcard area swamps and overwhelms the rest of the work. It looks like two different textiles pieces stood next to each other, having nothing to unify them other than a common narrative. Perhaps the artist could have chosen to exploit the beige and gold colours of the original motif on her boteh design, which would have leant an element of harmony with the colour of the punchcards? Perhaps the size of the appliquéd area could have been made larger, so that it wasn’t completely overwhelmed by the scale of the punchcards? Perhaps the text could have been more subtle and integrated into the whole pice, like a thread of storytelling running across the textiles and so uniting the two rectangular areas? 

I thoughht I ought to ask myself at this point how I might have interpreted the Scissor shawl. It would depend on the extent to which I felt compelled to convey a narrative, and whether I was content to interpret elements of the design purely for their decorative merits. Although I don’t have a definitive answer at this time, I can say that I would seek a more balanced an harmonious visual outcome.


Madder by Cas Holmes:

For me, this was the stand out contemporary piece at the exhibition. “Madder” (Costume and Textile Association, 2016: 24) measures 151 x 56cm and is a wall hanging made using found rags and cloths from workshops in India. The piece tells the story of the Norwich red shawls (having been made as a cheaper alternative to the finely woven shawls of Kashmir). This piece incorporates pieces of Indian cloth many of which bear the traditional “Botch” (flower) design. The work which Holmes has put into making the piece serves as a reminder of the “unfair trade” in the clothing industry today, and how the tables have turned to make the Indian fabric the cheap alternative (Costume and Textile Association, 20016:24). Norwich shawls would have been traditionally dyed with the plant root madder to produce their vibrant red colour before the introduction of synthetic dyes, hence the title of this piece.

I hoped to be able to find a link to an image of “Madder” on the internet. I haven’t been able to, and I unfortunately didn’t make a sketch at the exhibition. Describing the piece is tricky, but I’ll have a go! The work consists of a pieced patchwork of ochre, pink, white and blue plain and patterned cloths, stitched together by machine and embroidered across the whole surface with a large plant motif worked in pink thread. Holes have been made in some parts of the hanging, and the sections of cloth vary from dense and opaque to fine and transparent, giving the piece a dynamic feel. Unity is achieved by the colour scheme and the machine embroidered plant/flowerhead which stretches from top to bottom of the hanging. The work is visually stunning and engaging.

I was so inspired by “Madder” that I decided to purchase Cas Holmes’ book “Stitch Stories” (Holmes, 2015), so that I might better understand how she convey narrative through her work. I have only just started to read the book, but I was interested to discover that Holmes was brought up in Norwich (hence her interest and connection with the Norwich textile industry). It was also interesting to read that she has a Romany grandmother who inspired her interest in collecting and re-using found objects (Holmes, 2015:6-7).



Priestley, U. (1995) ‘The Norwich Textile Industry 1750-1880’ In: Clabburn, P. (1995) The Norwich Shawl: It’s history and a catalogue of the collection at Strangers’ Hall museum, Norwich. London. HMSO. pp.1-9.

Clabburn, P. (1995) The Norwich Shawl: It’s history and a catalogue of the collection at Strangers’ Hall museum, NorwichLondon. HMSO.

Costume and Textile Association (2016) Norwich Shawls: Past glory, present inspiration. Norwich. The hostry, Norwich cathedral.

Holmes, C. (2015) Stitch stories, personal places, species and traces in textile art. London. Batsford.

Hoyte, H. (2016) The story of the Norwich Shawl. Norwich. Nick Williams.

Rhodes, Z. (2005) Zandra Rhodes: A lifelong love affair with textiles. Camberley. Zandra Rhodes Publications Ltd.


One thought on “Norwich Shawls: Past glory, present inspiration – 14 October 2016

  1. Pingback: Update on upcycled silk scraps – Part II | Agnes Ashe

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s