Textiles production has been an enormously important activity since early times. What we wear, and how we furnish our homes are two of the great preoccupations which unite us all. The textiles story also embraces wider histories: ideas of beauty and design, fashion and innovation, production and working practice, trade and retail.
This web-site invites you to explore these ideas by looking at textiles development in one English provincial city: the City of Norwich.
People are usually surprised to find out that Norwich had an important part to play in the textile world. Often described as England's second city, Norwich in its heyday has been described as ‘the chief seat of the chief manufacture of the realm’. In the 17th and 18th centuries ‘Norwich Stuffs’ were known throughout Europe and beyond. The Norwich Shawls of the 19th century were amongst the most beautiful and technically advanced fabrics of their age.
The early medieval cloth industry was based on the production of a variety of woollen and linen cloths. From the 16th century, Norwich specialised in light unfulled cloths, such as camlets. Success rested on the fusion of technical knowledge introduced by the Dutch, Flemish and Walloon settlers known as ‘Strangers’, and the expertise of the Norwich-born cloth workers. A fabulous range of cloths, many with exotic names like callimanco and tappisado, was developed and sold at home and abroad.
During the industrial revolution, the Norwich industry was eclipsed by cloths from areas better served to take advantage of cheap labour, power sources and good communications; such as the West Riding of Yorkshire. Norwich responded by re-inventing itself as a centre for making shawls, horsehairs and crapes, but its share of the trade gradually fell away.
The last cloth was made in Norwich in the late 1970s. Bomb damage, slum clearance and road schemes have destroyed much of the textiles landscape. But look more closely, and the legacy of textile might is unmistakable. We find traces of wealth generated in the City churches, public buildings and charities and in its stock of merchant and artisan housing. Above all, we find the lives of leading Norwich citizens over the centuries and story of textiles manufacture are closely inter-twined.