The History of Norwich Shawls


At the March meeting of Forncett History Group it was a great pleasure to welcome Joy Evitt from the Costume and Textiles Association (C&TA) to talk to us about the History of Norwich Shawls. The C&TA was founded in 1989 to promote the unique costume and textile heritage of Norwich and Norfolk and to promote interest and encourage research into historical costumes, fashions and textiles. Joy has made a detailed study of the Norwich shawl, and she took us on a colourful journey through their history, illustrated not only by beautiful photographs but also by her own personal collection of original garments.

Joy Evitt with one of her beautiful Norwich shawls
Joy Evitt with one of her beautiful Norwich shawls

In Norwich, silk and worsted cloth had made the city famous and prosperous from the 16th century onwards, and towards the end of the 18th century shawls were becoming the 'must haves' of the fashionable elite. Most desirable were the magnificent and very expensive cashmere shawls from Kashmir, and so textile manufacturers in Norwich sought to produce a similar article at a competitive price. The first Norwich shawls were produced in the 1790s and they rapidly became a success, not only in the UK but also when exported to many parts of Europe. This brought Norwich huge wealth, and at the height of this flourishing textile industry there were over 12,000 looms operating in the city.

Not only did Norwich have an excellent reputation for high quality weaving, but also for dyeing. Early in the 18th century, a Norwich chemist, Michael Stark, had perfected a process which dyed silks and worsteds to an identical shade of scarlet. So successful was his process, that yarns and cloth were sent to Norwich from all over the kingdom to be dyed 'Norwich Red'.

Despite increasing competition from other centres, including Paisley in Scotland and from France, Norwich continued to make top-quality shawls and at the Great Exhibition in 1851, five Norwich manufacturers were highly commended for their work. The 1850s and early 1860s were the most outstanding years for shawl making, when huge four-metre long, all silk, brilliantly coloured shawls were made for wearing with crinolines.

However, by the 1870s shawl-wearing was in decline. Dress styles changed and women were becoming more active, so a mantle with sleeves was much more convenient than a draped shawl over the shoulders. By the 1880s Norwich could no longer a compete with the mass production of Paisley shawls which had robbed the shawls of their prestige. So, a fashion which had lasted for nearly 100 years was quickly over, but the prosperity of Norwich continued with new industries in shoe making, brewing, chocolate making, engineering, insurance and banking.

Joy's talk was very well received and afterwards we had the opportunity to see and feel the remarkable workmanship that went into these shawls when Joy invited us to handle her collection. It was difficult to believe that some of these beautiful fabrics were more than 150 years old. Their vibrant colours and amazing quality left an abiding memory with all of us.

You can read more about the history of the Norwich shawl at .