You probably recognise this tear drop motif, correctly known as boteh inspired by the territories which bordered Kashmir. This pattern developed from a vase or bunch of flowers with tightly packed heads bending at the top, into the familiar decorated pinecone shape.
Nowadays, we call this highly decorated tear drop pattern Paisley, the name of the Scottish town which used the design to decorate its shawls in the early nineteenth century. However, Paisley wasn’t the first British town to produce shawls decorated in this way.
Norwich had been using a similar pattern on the borders of their shawls since the late eighteenth century and by the nineteenth century, there were at least twenty shawl manufacturers in the town.
In India, each shawl needed the fine wool of 27 goats – but the Norwich weavers, with long experience of working with fine quality, lightweight fabrics, developed a combination of silk and sheep’s wool which was soft, warm and strong. The development of the Jacquard loom with its perforated pattern cards, allowed ever more complex patterns to emerge, which eventually covered most of the shawl rather than stopping at the borders.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, Norwich manufacturers were dismayed by other towns, like Paisley, copying their patterns and flooding the market. In 1842, it became possible to register a design at the Public Records Office for one shilling. However, this protection was only valid for between six and twelve months so only a few companies took the opportunity of protecting their patterns against piracy in this way.
The finest Norwich shawls were woven between 1830 and 1860, and in 1850, printed shawls came onto the market.
Many Norwich shawls were dyed with a colour identified as Norwich Red. These shawls, designed to cover crinolines, were over six feet square, or a twelve foot rectangle, filled with boteh sometimes five feet in length, filled with flowers and covering the whole shawl. Some Norwich shawls were displayed at The Great Exhibition of 1851 and Queen Victoria ordered some for herself.
The leading expert in this country on the Norwich Shawl is a delightful 92 year old lady called Helen Hoyte – who received an MBE a year ago for her work in preserving and documenting these lovely garments. [watch the first 90 seconds of this video]
In October, there will be a special exhibition in Norwich Cathedral celebrating Norwich Shawls. I am planning to visit when we are up at Cornerstones that month. But I shall say more about this next week!