Special shawls are woven in to the fabric of this city

Derek James looks at a fascinating new book about the history of the Norwich shawl.

A Norwich shawl was once the height of fashion. They were given as gifts to royalty and passed down the generations as heirlooms. Even today, the flowing fabrics, alive with glowing colours and fine swirling patterns created perhaps 200 years ago, are stunning.

Norwich's history as a celebrated centre of the wool, shoe, mustard and chocolate industry is well-known, but fewer people are aware of its incredible shawls.

Now, a first book by 87-year-old city shawl expert Helen Hoyte aims to unwrap the fascinating history of the Norwich shawl.

'I have just got a passion for Norwich shawls. They are such magnificent works of art. Those made in Norwich in the 19th century are some of the finest shawls in the world,' said Helen. 'Norwich people should be enormously proud of them.'

She has become a leading expert on Norwich shawls, with speaking engagements across the country.

From the late 1700s until the 1870s and beyond, shawls were the must-have style piece for ladies of any social standing. And Norwich shawls were the absolute height of fashion for many decades (fashion moved a whole lot slower in the days when you had to make the most of your clothes yourself and when a ready-made shawl could be a work of art which took many weeks for a team of expert craftsmen to complete.)

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Norwich shawls were special because it was here that weavers, already among the best in the world thanks to centuries of turning wool into cloth, discovered a wool and silk mix which was ideal for the new and wildly popular Indian-style shawls.

Proper Kashmiri shawls took up to three years to make, from the wool of Himalayan goats. Norwich copies, made on foot-operated machines rather than created by hand, took weeks rather than years and were soon flying off the looms and into the wardrobes of wealthy women all over the country.

The large squares of material were fringed with intricate patterns, or patterned all over. Queens and princesses wore them and Helen said: 'They were made for the elite. Owning and wearing a Norwich shawl showed your husband was wealthy and you were a really important person.'

Norwich manufacturers held exhibitions in London and opened shops in fashionable Bath. In 1804, the Norwich Mercury newspaper reported that a city shawl-maker had taken an order for at least 40,000 shawls.

'Until the 1870s a lady wasn't a lady unless she had a shawl, and the very best was a Norwich shawl,' said Helen.

It was not until the end of the century that shawls became more of an encumbrance than an adornment for women wanting to move around freely. Even then, they were often still treasured and stored away as family heirlooms or used as bedspreads, curtains or tablecloths.

They were taken around the world and still turn up in places as far away as Australia or America.

'I am sure there are more,' said Helen. 'If people look in their dressing-up boxes, or at that pair of old curtains or throw, they may find they have got a Norwich shawl.'

She has just finished tracing the story of Norwich's shawls in a book aimed at uncovering this colourful part of the city's history.

It is dedicated to Pamela Clabburn, another champion of Norwich's textile industry. Pamela, a descendant of one of the city's most famous shawl-making families, died this summer, but was instrumental in the rediscovery of the Norwich shawl. Helen said she is simply 'taking on the baton' of Pamela's enthusiasm and research.

Helen worked as a textile designer in her native Scotland, before becoming an art and textiles teacher at Thorpe St Andrew. She had inherited a much-loved Edinburgh shawl and was delighted to discover that Norwich too had a rich history of antique shawls. She became a founder member of Norfolk's Costume and Textiles Association and has regularly given talks on Norwich shawls and written articles for specialist journals.

Her first book, The Story of the Norwich Shawl, is packed with fashion plates of models displaying the latest designs and pictures of the intricate patterns.

Manufactures with marvellous names 19th century names, such as Obadiah Short and Abel Towler are introduced. We also meet the weavers, who began a seven-year apprenticeship at 14, and the dyers who lived worked (and often died prematurely because of difficult labour and the noxious chemicals they used) along the River Wensum. Dye recipe books were so secret that few have survived.

However, many of the shawls have survived. The Norfolk Museums Service has a comprehensive collection, kept at Carrow House Costume and Textile Study Centre, on King Street in Norwich. In 1995, an exhibition of more than 100 Norwich shawls, held at the Castle, was opened by fashion legend Vivienne Westwood, pictured right. 'People stepped into the Castle and were just dazzled by all these glorious textiles,' said Helen.

'Norfolk had unfortunately forgotten its textile heritage, but recently, and Pamela started it, there's been a determined effort to remind people.' The exhibition led to some fascinating accounts of Norwich's weaving industry from elderly people who remembered the days of looms and threads and dyes so potent that the Wensum would run red.

Some even discovered they owned Norwich shawls. 'People got in touch with us and Pamela and I had a wonderful time going all over the county looking at peoples' shawls,' said Helen.

And Helen has her own small collection of Norwich shawls. She bought her first at a fair around 20 years ago. 'I knew it was a Norwich shawl from around 1820. It was absolutely enchanting,' she said. Her oldest is 200-years-old, and her favourite has exquisitely woven borders in silvers, and golds and reds. It was made by Clabburn, Son and Crisp in 1858 and was given to Helen by her friend and mentor Pamela Clabburn.

Helen's book, The Story of the Norwich Shawl, is dedicated to Pamela's memory.

She credits the former curator of Strangers Hall Museum with bringing Norwich Shawls back to public attention. The book is on sale in Jarrold. It was written with support from the Harry Watson Bursary and proceeds from its sale will go to the Norfolk Museums Costume and Textile Association.

And Helen, textiles expert, Norwich shawl specialist and 87-year-old grandmother, has already begun her second book, looking at the legacy, in cloth, of the Strangers who arrived in Norwich from Holland.

See Norwich Shawls being worn at Dragon Hall on April 6. The fashion parade and talk is being run by the Costume and Textile Association and narrated by Helen Hoyte. For more details visit the Costume and Textile Association website at www.ctacostume.org.uk