Prized Silk Rediscovered during the Biannual Wardrobe Rotation

black mourning crape crepe
Antique silk mourning cape made from Norwich Crape, circa 1890.

Please feel free to laugh at the somewhat quaint way some of us choose to live our lives, but twice a year I reorganise my wardrobe and generally have a sort and tidy session. It’s a boring chore, but last weekend it ended on a positive note when I came across one of my forgotten vintage/antique textiles. Actually, antique is the correct term to use as this Norwich Crape mourning cape is over 100 years old.

norwich crape company bridewell
Framed poster for the Norwich Crape Company which is now at the Bridewell Museum, Norwich

Norwich is an old city and during the medieval period it was England’s Second City (after London) with its wealth being built on the woollen cloth trade. Fine woollen cloth was a premium product exported to Europe. Weavers were based in Norwich and in the surrounding Norfolk villages and the famous worsted woven wool originates from the village of Worstead in North East Norfolk. The importance of cloth to the economics of the city is an interesting, long tale, but essentially comes to an end at the close of the nineteenth century. (Update March 2016 – An accessible and well researched account used to be able at norwichtextiles.org, but since the UK extensive funding cuts this website is no longer in existence. Ironically it appears to have gone the same way as the Norwich textile industry. A small local charity is attempting to provide some historical information, but it’s more geared to an ‘informed tourist’ than any serious research. And, unfortunately, as I write this, the most informative book ‘Made in Norwich: 700 Years of Textile Heritage’ by Thelma Morris, is unavailable.)

Norwich’s final notable textile product during the Victorian period had been Norwich Crape. Crape was the term used for black silk or imitation black silk used to make women’s mourning dress (the term crape comes from crepe a type of crinkled silk). According to Thelma Morris at the Norwich Textiles Org – ‘crape is a crimped plain woven silk cloth. The crinkling was produced by weaving a soft weft on a hard twisted warp, the latter causing the cloth to ‘curl’ in the finishing process when it was passed over a heated roller engraved with the desired pattern of the finished crape.’

crinkled silk crape
Detail of the fine crinkled silk showing a translucent quality.

Cloth for mourning dress was an important trade as an upstanding Victorian was expected to wear black for a period of two years’ after the death of a close family member. This practice fell out of fashion as the etiquette of mourning became less rigid in the early twentieth century and with the decline in demand for black silk the production of Norwich Crape ceased. I think my mourning silk cape must have been used by a woman who was expected to be out and visiting, but still in black, as it decorated with a delicate pattern of tiny black glass beads. Despite it being quite fragile due to its age I have worn this over an evening dress and as with all silk it does look better in real life than in the photos!

black glass beads detail
Norwich crape decorated with tiny black glass beads.

AND . . . THAT WARDROBE BUSINESS

You might not have guessed, but, I do like old stuff and I have this battered old Victorian mahogany wardrobe which was the only furniture I could fit into a small, cottage bedroom I once had – so I’ve got used to it even though you can’t hang clothes in it in the normal 21st-century way. Consequently, each spring and autumn I swap all my clothing round as I change from winter to summer clothes and then from summer back to winter outfits! Well, it helps to pass the time.

old fashioned wardrobe hooks
An awkward arrangement.
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Author: agnesashe

Artisan, blogger and passionate East Anglian working from home.

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