Wrapping up a fashion tale of a Norwich style icon

Students practising modelling their shawls at the Norwich University of the Arts. Photo: Bill Smith

Students practising modelling their shawls at the Norwich University of the Arts. Photo: Bill Smith - Credit: Archant © 2013

A Norwich fashion craze which swept the world two centuries ago takes centre stage on Wednesday with some 21st century wrap artists, writes Rowan Mantell.

Helen Hoyte with some of the original Norwich shawls. Photo: Andy Darnell.

Helen Hoyte with some of the original Norwich shawls. Photo: Andy Darnell. - Credit: Archant © 2010

Norwich shawls were once the high-fashion, must-have buy for well-dressed women around the world.

From society weddings to Sunday services and from formal dances to state funerals, the swirl of beautifully-coloured and patterned shawls, made in Norwich, swept through Britain, Europe, the Empire and beyond.

The Norwich shawl was at the height of its popularity in the mid 19th century and when the Norwich Art School was established in 1845, one of its remits was to help weavers design their own shawls so that they did not have to buy in patterns from France.

Almost 170 years later, students from the art school, now called the Norwich University of the Arts, have designed and made their own 21st century Norwich shawls and will be modelling them at the city's first Shawl Spectacular event on Wednesday.

Taking the city of Norwich as their inspiration the students have created shawls filled with flowers or patterns based on architectural landmarks.

The students and members of Norwich's Costume and Textile Association will take to the cat-walk at Norwich Cathedral Hostry with the students modelling their own creations and the textile enthusiasts showing off classic 19th century Norwich shawls – most of which have not been seen in public since they were paraded through the streets of the Victorian city by their proud owners, as the very latest in fashion.

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Shawls on show will include exquisite examples still owned by the Clabburn family, who were leading manufacturers. Others are on loan from members of the Colman family, including a silk shawl, made in Norwich and identical to three beautifully printed shawls, in the Danish royal colours of petunia, red and cream, given to Princess Alexandra of Denmark when she married Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) in 1863.

It was discovered in a trunk in Norwich by Charlotte and Rachel Fielding. Their grandmother was a Colman and it is believed Caroline Colman, wife of mustard-maker and philanthropist Jeremiah James Colman, bought the shawl in 1863, from the Caley Shawl Warehouse in London Street, Norwich. The original bill was found in the trunk, revealing it cost a spectacular £20, which works out at around £1,700 in modern money. It is believed to have been made by Clabburn, Sons and Crisp, and has never been shown in public before.

The Shawl Spectacular also includes another Norwich shawl, made more than 200 years ago and, again, more than three metres long. It was made of silk and worsted by Towler of Norwich and is very like the shawl he was commissioned to make for Queen Victoria when she visited the city in 1867.

Helen Hoyte, a founding member of the Costume and Textile Association, helped put together the collection of Norwich shawls being exhibited next week and is still researching the Colman Alexandra shawl. 'Until the 1870s a lady wasn't a lady unless she had a shawl, and the very best was a Norwich

shawl,' said Helen, who worked as a textile designer before becoming an art and

textiles teacher and then writing a book about the Norwich shawl industry.

Norwich shawl-makers shot to international fame after creating a wool and silk mix which was ideal for the wildly popular Indian-style shawls. Actual Kashmiri shawls took up to three years to make, from the wool of Himalayan goats, but Norwich

copies, made on foot-operated machines rather than by hand, took weeks rather than

years and were soon flying off the looms and into the wardrobes of wealthy women all over the world.

And next week women will once again be wearing the very latest Norwich shawls.

'There has never been anything like this Shawl Spectacular in Norwich before,' said Joy Evitt, chairwoman of the Costume and Textile Association, which sponsored the printing of the students' shawls and scarves and will be awarding prizes for the best designs.

'We are awarding prizes in our attempt not only to promote Norwich's heritage but encourage young talent as well,' said Joy. 'Today's students still have to be commercially minded to build careers.'

This month's event is even giving modern students a chance their Victorian counterparts did not have. 'Instead of encouraging them to design for commerce and the shawl industry, they insisted on a very strict training of drawing from antique statues which did not aid shawls design in any way!' said Joy.

The Shawl Spectacular will include a chance to order scarves designed by the students.

The Shawl Spectacular is being staged by Norfolk's Costume and Textile Association and the University of the Arts, at Norwich Cathedral Hostry on Wednesday April 17 from 7-9pm.

Tickets, which cost £16 for non Association members, including wine and nibbles, should be available on the door.

Norwich Shawls can also be seen at Norwich's Bridewell Museum, in the Arts of Living Gallery in the Castle Museum or by appointment at the Textile Study Centre at the Shirehall, Norwich.