Friday, 25 September 2009

Pattern Darning and Shawls

I am very pleased to have this book engraving of what, at first glance, appears to be a young embroiderer. The first glance is not deceived, but what leads one to think so is that she has the title 'The Little Norwich Shawl Worker'. I just wish she was less concerned with whoever is taking her portrait than the work in her hand, because it is difficult to see exactly what she intends with her hands. Although shawls from the East were known in the UK as early as 1662, it is not until the last quarter of the 18th century that they were adopted for fashionable female wear. By which time manufacture had switched from the East to three main centres of weaving in the UK: Edinburgh, Paisley and Norwich. In 1796 shawl production in Norwich was booming. John Bidwell had 18 looms and declared he could employ 3 or 4 times as many. In London he could sell ten times more than he could make. In 1847, one manufacturer alone sold 32,000 shawls. And in the early years of shawl making, before the acceptance in the 1820s and 1830s of the French invented Jacquard loom from France, designs on shawls were embroidered and pattern-darned by hand, by young girls such our shawl worker here.
Pattern-darning, as I have touched on before, is not to be confused with darning. Pattern-darning is concerned with surface creation while darning is concerned with surface repair. So, a few questions need to be asked. If all these shawls were being produced, how many tens or hundreds of girls such as the the Little Norwich Shawl Worker were required to pattern-darn them? Did they leave no traces at all except for this one engraving? How were the girls trained for the work? Was there a conscious production of locally trained girls to meet the demands of the town's manufacture? How did the girls present their credentials for employment (if any)? Did they work from home as piece-workers, or were they taken into a factory and housed together like the silk girls in Lyons? And like the silk industry in Taulignan, was this work considered to be useful sponge for mopping up orphaned girls? What about the shawlmaker's counterparts in France where there was also a fashion for shawls? What was happening in the Netherlands at this time? Is it a just a coincidence that patterned-darned samplers seem to spring into being at the same time as the boom in manufacture of these shawls?

And when Jacquard looms did replace the pattern-darner, who would mend the loom-produced shawls when threads were snagged in the weaving. A silk and fine wool shawl could not be rejected for a few defects, easily rewoven by a needle in appropriately trained little hands. There is so much more still to be discovered, let's never fall into the trap of thinking all the answers are known, nor the pit where it is better to follow existing texts than to risk asking why the Empress has no shawl.


  1. Thank you, Jacqueline, for explaining a new subject. It never occurred to be that these young women would be making and repairing shawls. I am fascinated by this subject. We are indebted to your tireless effort in researching and presenting all forms of needlework.

  2. Thank you for your kind words. I think I raise many more questions than I can answer - but this is certainly a worthy area of more research.

  3. i will never wear a shaw again without a few questions and appreciation, no matter were it is from. thank you