Last year I entered a competition ‘Norwich Shawls: Past Glory, Present Inspiration’. It was to feature both exhibits of original shawls and new textile work inspired by the shawls. At the time I blogged about the initial re-dyeing and reusing of my silk scraps in preparation for working into a hooked textile wall hanging. My work wasn’t accepted, but it was an interesting experience and gave me the opportunity to find out about the weavers and wearers of Norwich Shawls and consider how to interpret their legacy.
Now as I write, with my Art Historian’s hat on, I know that the production of a creative work and the audiences’ reception of a creative piece, is not without context. As far as the original, very expensive (then and now) Norwich Shawls are concerned, there is plenty of context. The Norwich Shawl was popular in one form or another across the nineteenth century with at it’s height, a royal wearer. The Great Exhibition of 1851 had provided the weavers of Norwich the chance to exhibit their shawls. When Queen Victoria visited the exhibition she saw some of their work and was duly impressed with the beautiful shawls and later ordered two.
Originally Norwich Shawls were produced by weavers working from home and many of the weavers and their families had a hard and precarious existence as recounted in the following extract.
REPORT OF VISITS TO HANDLOOM WEAVERS, 1850 (Extracts from the Morning Chronicle, 29 Jan 1850, Letter XVII)
As usual the loom was in the upper room, which was used as a workroom, bedroom, and in winter, to save a second fire, as a sitting-room. A diminutive little woman – all Norwich weavers are so – was busily engaged at the loom, and during the intervals of putting the fresh bobbins on the shuttle, I obtained the following information from her:- ‘I do the best kind of barege work. If I commence work at light, and keep on till eleven at night, without being called off to do anything else, I can weave eleven dozen in a week, and I should get 11s. 11d. for that – that is, 13d. a dozen. I pay a girl, who does the winding, 2s a week and her dinner; then ‘beaming on,’ candles, and other expenses would be about 10d.- so that would leave me 9s. 1d. for my week’s work. I am rather a privileged person, and if there is any work to be got, I usually have the preference, but I am often obliged to ‘play’… I suppose for the last twelve months I have played four at least. I am married and have four children; they are all at school. My husband sometimes works the other loom. When I do not have this girl to wind for me I can get it done for a penny a dozen.’ A person unacquainted with the process of winding could scarcely form an idea of the quantity of manual labour thus performed for a penny. The ‘dozen’ referred to is a dozen skeins, each containing 560 yards, or 6,720 in the dozen; and this quantity has to be transferred from the hank or skeins to small bobbins for the shuttle, by means of a small wheel, turned by the hand of the winder. A great loss of time constantly takes place in consequence of the threads of silk breaking, and of the constant change of bobbins required when full. At the winding it is physically impossible to earn more than from 2s. to 3s. per week. Of course, the great proportion of this kind of work is done by young 8 children or old persons; but that is not always the case. The person employed as winder in the above instance was a young woman of eighteen years of age, and she received 2s. a week and her dinner; but in addition to winding she was expected to assist in the household duties, in taking care of the children, and other matters, while the woman was at work.”
During my research I read about the advancements in weaving technology through the nineteenth century and, in particular, the ability to weave complex patterns with the invention of the Jacquard loom. Specifically in Norwich the industrialisation of weaving was a slow process. The first power-looms introduced by Henry Willett in 1828 were met with a negative response from the city’s hand-loom weavers who smashed the windows of the Willett & Nephew factory premises viewing the new technology as a threat to their livelihoods. Nevertheless, modernity advanced, albeit slowly, and towards the later half of the nineteenth century the larger, more complicated, all-silk Norwich shawls were mostly made on Jacquard looms either in large workrooms or factories. The Jacquard looms were usually too big for domestic houses and so factory life became the norm for most Norwich shawl weavers.
This is a short video showing the Jacquard loom (pictured above right) in action.
Despite, the industrialisation of the weaving process throughout the 19th century the employment of children in the weaving business was routine both in a domestic and industrial setting. The more I read and learned, the less I felt like ‘celebrating’ the ‘Norwich Shawl’ as simply beautifully woven pieces. The context of their production was as significant as their history of being exemplary textiles prized and owned by a few lucky ladies.
In Part II, I will discuss my creative response to these contexts and the final work I submitted to ‘Norwich Shawls: Past Glory, Present Inspiration’ as well as photographs of other textile artists’ contributions that were exhibited. (Sadly, for some reason which couldn’t be explained, photos weren’t allowed at the Exhibition and it was firmly policed by the volunteers, but I did capture a few snaps on my phone. I would just comment that some of the contemporary artists’ work featured in the Exhibition was/is displayed on the artists’ own websites.)