Sheriff’s Diary

In this week's diary, Sheriff of Norwich Derek James enjoys a sell-out show celebrating one of Norwich's most prized exports - its shawls.

Norwich is famous for its shoes, its mustard, chocolate, printing, engineering skills and textiles, but there is one item of clothing which has never got the credit it deserves – and that is the shawl.

The Norwich shawl was special.

It was the Rolls Royce of shawls.

The very height of fashion. It was the very best in the land and was exported right across the world.

A Norwich shawl was a real fashion statement – if you were wearing one of these you were a VIP.

And it did play a leading role in the Norwich story. Back in 1804 the Norwich Mercury, now the Evening News, reported that a city shawl-maker had taken an order for at least 40,000 shawls – and that meant a lot of work for a lot of people.

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Now, at long last, thanks to people like Helen Hoyte and members of the Costume and Textile Association (C&TA), the story of the shawl is reaching a much wider audience.

Last week, my wife and I were at a unique Shawl Walk presented by the C&TA, an independent charity, which does so much good work promoting the glorious history of costume and textile industry in the city.

The sell-out show at the magnificent Dragon Hall was an exclusive opportunity to see some exquisite examples of the shawls, some from private collections, which are rarely seen in public.

And the story of the shawl was brought alive by our host for the evening, Helen Hoyte, whose book The Story of the Norwich Shawl, is an absolute gem. An example of local history at its best.

In the late 18th century, beautiful and very expensive shawls from Kashmir became fashionable wear in European high society.

The shawls were light, warm, colourful and ideal to wear with the thin cotton gowns of the time.

Quickly, European manufacturers copied the Indian designs and Norwich, with a traditional cloth which closely resembled cashmere, soon took the lead in weaving exclusive shawls.

During the 19th century, shawl wearing increased in importance, to became an indication of a lady's status in society.

With expert weavers and dyers, Norwich shawls gained a distinguished reputation for their quality and the outstanding beauty of their designs.

It was a major industry and the tremendous demand for our shawls came from all over the world.

A particular shade of red became known as the Norwich red.

Norwich was famous for the quality and brightness of its dyes and the River Wensum often turned red because of the amount of dyeing carried out on the river bank.

Shawl-makers had businesses dotted all over the city and they opened businesses in London and Bath to sell their sought-after items of fashion to the rich and famous. They were especially prized by royalty.

After nearly 100 years, the fashion for shawl making declined and many were kept as family treasures, some were used as furnishings or made into other garments.

Last week's show was a window on a lost world. One which is finally being appreciated again.

I would like to thank Helen, Vivienne Weeks, and all the members of the C&TA for all the work they do in supporting the museum collection of costume and textiles which will soon be moving from Carrow House to the Shirehall.

And we are all looking forward to the opening of the Bridewell Museum, where we are promised that more Norwich shawls will be on display.

It was an absolute pleasure to attend the 'shawl walk' and a privilege for my wife to be able to model a silk and worsted square shawl, which was exhibited by Norwich shawl maker Edward Blakely at the Great Exhibition in 1851.

A big thank you to all the models who took part – for showing off such an important, and little known, part of the Norwich story, so well.

You many like to consider joining the Costume & Textile Association, an independent charity promoting the unique collection held by the Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service. More details on

If you would like to know more then get a copy of the book, The Story of the Norwich Shawl by Helen Hoyte, in the shops now.