Ripping yarns: A journey through the evolution of the textile industry in the East of England

By Ivan Stoyanov | 29 June 2010
An image of a card with patterns and colours on it

(Above) A pattern card from the 18th century. Image © Bridewell Museum

Textile production has been an enormously important activity in the East of England since early times, embracing ideas of beauty and design, fashion and innovation, production and working practice and trade and retail. Culture24 reporter Ivan Stoyanov invites you to explore these by looking at textile development in the City of Norwich…

Norwich in its heyday has often been described as "the chief seat of manufacture of the realm". The 17th and 18th centuries saw Norwich Stuffs, the colourful weaves the area produced, shoot to fame throughout Europe and beyond.

The long-forgotten madder dye and cloth industry are a source of intrigue for contemporary researchers these days, working hard to unravel the characteristics of the individual fabrics and chart their use over time.

A black and white photo of a man working at a spinning wheel

Hand-spinning in the early 20th century. Image © Bridewell Museum

Most locals don't know that the early Medieval cloth industry relied heavily on the production of a variety of woollen and linen cloths. It all started with the development of dying activity at Lyster's Hole on the south side of the River Wensum.

Manufacturers had to be mindful of the changing tastes and trends of foreign customers. They did this by travelling abroad themselves and using agents whose job was to negotiate with overseas wholesalers and gain new orders.

Thus, silk entered the Kingdom, becoming an extensively used fabric in its own right. A more expensive version of it was imported from Italy, with the inferior "spun" silk, produced from cocoon waste in the City.

At the peak of Norwich crape production, peasantry got into the habit of planting mulberry trees. Those fed silk worms farmed in the area and stimulated manufacture.

An image of a red flowery pattern on a rug

A brocaded damask from 18th century Norwich. Image © Norwich Costume and Textile Centre

From the 16th century onwards, a rapid expansion in the industry brought light unfulled cloths into focus, of which camlets were the most prominent.

The fusion of technical knowledge introduced by Dutch, Flemish and Walloon settlers, combined with the expertise of Norwich-born cloth workers, guaranteed huge success. Also known as Strangers, the settlers let their imagination run wild, developing a creative approach to treating fabrics which breathed new life into trade.

Their help resulted in a broad range of cloths – many with exotic names such as callimanco and tappisado – springing into existence and selling out quickly, both in the UK and abroad.

Damask, Denims, Velour and Chequers are shining examples of the rich imagination and groundbreaking experimentation which took place at the time.

A photo of a lilac coloured silk shawl hanging against a black background

A shawl in woven silk. Image © Steven Beaumont

The industrial revolution, however, meant that the Norwich textile industry was in eclipse. Cheap labour, power sources and good communications flourished in the West Riding of Yorkshire and came to dominate the market.

Reinventing itself as a centre for making shawls, horsehairs and crapes as a response to the challenging situation, Norwich’s fair share of the trade gradually dwindled away.

The last bundles of fabric were inserted into the crevices in the late 1970s. Bomb damage, slum clearance and road schemes destroyed much of the textiles landscape. But look more closely and the legacy of textile might is still unmistakable.

Nowadays visitors can find traces of textile wealth in the City churches, public buildings and charities. They can also learn more about the lives of leading Norwich citizens over the centuries.

A photo of a dark red rug with a yellow sun-style circular pattern in the middle

Moon shawl. Image © Norwich Costume and Textile Centre

To celebrate this, Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service has joined forces with the Norwich School of Art and Design in launching the Norwich Textile Project, offering a modern textiles environment where students and practitioners can collaborate to generate a contemporary perspective on the story.

"Professional aspirations are being transformed, so journalists become artists, artists become educators and makers become designers," muses Cathy Terry, the Curator of Social History for the Service.

"Many students take advantage of the opportunities that exist to develop websites, computer-aided print, stitch or weave, and video work. They bring fresh vitality and challenges.

"This project aims to capture the exciting developments in textile practice inspired by the challenges of state-of-the-art technology."

Enthusiasts are encouraged to either email the museum or the Textile Culture Department at Norwich University College of the Arts with any related research.

To catch a glimpse of the City’s historic past, you can stop by at Carrow House in King Street, where a specialist Study Centre of costume and textiles is open by appointment on Tuesdays and Thursdays. To book a place call 01603 223870 or email the museums service.

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