Strangers, Undertakers, Pepys and Spies

By Jamie Everitt

What links these four things together? Perhaps one of my favourite objects in the Norfolk Collections Centre, the enigmatic silk press. Let us find out how.

Press full view

Norwich was once the most important cloth manufacturing town in Britain. Daniel Defoe, visiting in 1723, claimed that there were 120,000 textiles workers employed there. Although this was probably an exaggeration, there is no doubt that textiles were the backbone of the city’s trade for centuries.

In medieval times Norwich was renowned for its worsteds, a fine fabric made from combed wool. The name derives from the village of Worstead about 12 miles north of the city which, along with nearby Aylsham and North Walsham, first developed the trade in the 12th century. Carefully selected wools were prepared with a wool comb, a fearsome-looking instrument which had to be heated before use.

Wool comb

A wool comb from the collection of the Museum of Norwich

The combing process removes the shorter fibres leaving only the longer, which are at the same time straightened and aligned parallel with each other. This enables a fine thread to be spun, which can be knitted or woven into tailored garments including hosiery. Woollens, on the other hand, retain the natural ‘crimp’ or curliness of the wool and make a much coarser yarn, usually knitted up as garments such pullovers or woven to make blankets and similar cloth.

A great impetus to the development of the Norwich textile trade came from the ‘Strangers’, Flemish Protestant refugees fleeing religious persecution in the Dutch Netherlands. The authorities of Norwich first invited thirty master weavers arrived along with their families to settle in the city in 1565 to help bring prosperity back to its failing textile industry, and this pioneering group soon turned into a major influx. By 1582 the Strangers made up a third of the population of Norwich. Despite this rapid change in the city’s make up, they seem to have been well-received by the majority of the inhabitants. No doubt this was due in a large part to incomers and native inhabitants sharing the same religion, although the Strangers had their own churches and flavour of Protestantism – in 1585 there were three ministers for the Flemish community. Equally important, perhaps, was the fact that their industry and skill brought a return of prosperity to Norwich. Many settled in and helped rebuild the area north of the Wensum (‘Norwich over the water’) which had fallen into ruin after a disastrous fire in 1507.

Aside from worsteds Norwich also had an important silk industry for many years and the Strangers were instrumental in that too. It was they who are believed to have introduced the drawloom to Norwich. The drawloom is used for pattern weaving in silks and linens. It requires two operators: a weaver, and an assistant known as the ‘draw boy’, who works the figure harness. This harness controls each warp thread separately and thus enables complicated patterns to be woven.

Flemish weavers specialised in silk ‘mixed goods’ (i.e. a mixture of silk and other yarns) for which Norwich came to be famous in the 18th century. It is probably no coincidence that bombazine was first made in Norwich in 1575, shortly after the Strangers arrived. Bombazine was originally made with a silk warp and worsted weft, and was to become a Norwich speciality. Samuel Pepys had at least two suits made from the material. His diary entry for 25 June 1666 reads “This being the first day of my putting on my black stuff bombazin suit, and I hope to feel no inconvenience by it, the weather being extremely hot” (Pepys’ desire to look fashionable clearly overcome any thoughts of practicality), while on 30 May 1668 he records “Up, and put on a new summer black bombazin suit, and so to the office”. Perhaps the fabric for his suits was woven in Norwich?


Black bombazine became much favoured for mourning wear in the 18th and 19th centuries, but fell out of fashion by the beginning of the 20th century. Another Norwich speciality was crape, which was also associated with mourning wear – crape hat bands are still worn by some undertakers to this day. Like bombazine, crape had a silk warp and worsted weft, but it differed in being ‘crimped’ to give a ridged appearance, rather like crepe paper. This finish process could be done in a number of ways: it might be woven into the fabric but it could also be pressed into it.Bombazine

Samples of Norwich ‘treble bombazine’. Note the dense and very flat, matte finish. From a pattern book of Bolingbroke, Jones & Co, 1889-90. Costume & Textile collections NWHCM : 1966.661.27

Mourning crape

Sample of Norwich mourning crape from the Costume & Textiles collections.

And so, in a roundabout fashion, we come to our silk press. A massive contraption rather like a cider press, with heavy oak uprights and cross beams, 6ft 8in (203cm) high and 4ft (112cm) wide. From the upper beam a heavy, suspended iron screw thread holds a solid oak block just large enough to fit inside the cast iron tank; the end of the screw has holes for a pole to be inserted, which would enable great leverage to be exerted onto the block in the tank. This tank originally sat on the lower cross beam, but it is so immensely heavy (although it is not large, four people have difficulty in moving it) that for reasons of health and safety, as well as the safety of the press itself, it is now stored at its foot. So massive, indeed, is the press that it is firmly strapped to the wall – over the years it has warped a little and no longer sits quite as flat on the ground as no doubt it once did, and it would crush someone if it ever fell on them. When we move it, it is securely strapped to its pallet.

What was it used for? The short answer is we are not really sure. It was donated to Norwich museums in 1923 and is described in the accession registers as a ‘silk press’ but there is very little information beyond this.

The finishing processes in the old silk industry are not well documented, but one possibility is that it was used for making ‘watered’ silks. This is a finish where the fabric is folded and then pressed under great pressure, usually heated at the same time, to create a rippled, wave-like pattern also known as moire (pronounced ‘mwah’ or ‘mwah-ray’). Ironically, the pattern is easily destroyed by water, so the cloth can never be worn in the rain. It is partially pressed into the fabric and partially the result of the way light is reflected off the compressed fibres. Nowadays the pattern is created by ribbed rollers, but in the 18th century or early 19th century, which is when our press is thought to have been made, it is more likely that it was created by folding and pressing dampened fabric between hot metal plates.

Watered silk

Close up of a purple watered silk bodice, 1880s. Costume & Textile handling collections NWHCM : 1966.183.13.1

Certainly the tank still contains a number of thick, perforated metal plates. These were perhaps interleaved with the fabric and then great pressure applied by means of the screw. The bottom of the tank is also perforated and the insides have vertical grooves, perhaps to allow water to be squeezed out. But it is all something of a puzzle. Why is the tank so heavy? The sides are ⅞ inch (22mm) thick – was this to restrain the great pressure? (Unlikely, since most of the pressure would have been in the vertical plane and there was ample room to allow any trapped water to escape.) Or was it somehow heated, perhaps with charcoal, the thickness of the iron being to retain the heat between batches of material? But there is no sign of any burning on the wood. Perhaps it was simply too difficult to cast the iron any more thinly.

Press tankThe cast iron tank with perforated plates

Whether it was even used for silks is unknown, despite its identification. The dimensions of the tank are 23½ x 18 inches (60 x 46cm), the same width as a standard Norwich worsted cloth. So it might have been used for worsteds, or silks, mixed fabrics, or any of them as demand required. Cloth finishing was a separate but allied trade to weaving and while a finisher might specialise in one kind of work it is possible they could have turned their hand to other pieces if trade in their speciality was slack.

The press would have represented a huge investment for someone in oak, iron and labour. Objects like these were simple and easily repairable – ours has two wrought iron straps around the upper cross beam where it has split, perhaps testament to the forces it was subjected to. And they were so massively constructed they lasted literally several lifetimes. It could have been used economically long after more efficient industrialised machinery was introduced elsewhere.

Press straps

The wrought iron straps, added to pull together the upper cross beam. Note how the pressing block has also split along its length, near the back of the photograph.

But it was the Industrial Revolution which spelt the end for the Norwich textile industry. Slow to catch on to the new methods, a huge blow was dealt when Michael Greenwood, a skilled Yorkshire weaver, was sent to spy on the manufacturers of Norwich in an early example of industrial espionage. He fathomed their secrets of weaving bombazines and crapes and introduced their methods to Halifax in 1819, but with one crucial difference – the Yorkshire fabrics were produced on power looms. The handloom weavers of Norwich could not compete and by the end of the 19th century the Norwich textile industry had almost died out.

Only more research from experts in the field will tell us the true history of this puzzling but impressive object.


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