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The British Textile Biennial Exhibition has inspired us to look at our own Textile Collection here at The Whitaker. 


What do we know about this particular shawl, which is part of the Whitaker collection?  
Object 1994.05.01 
A Lancashire Woollen Shawl, blue grey and black check weave with fringe. 124” x 60”
Worn by the donor’s grandmother, born 1888. 

Gifted to the Whitaker in 1994 by Miss D. Chadwick. (She also donated a Victorian printed felt tablecloth, on display in the ‘Valley Past’ gallery.) 

Lancashire Woollen Shawl, blue grey and black check weave with fringe, worn by donor’s grandmother, born 1888 and difted to the Museum in 1994.The Whitaker Collection.  

Why is this shawl important to our collection? 
When we think of the clothes that Victorian women wore, we tend to think of crinolines, parasols and bonnets because these are well documented in books and portraits or preserved in museums.

The majority of women, however, especially in the industrial areas of Lancashire, were working class. These were not women who stayed at home – they contributed significantly to the local economy. By the 1880s, 75% of cotton weavers in the mills were women. 

Whilst a modern woman might grab her jacket and slip into a car to go to work, these weavers would grab her shawl, throw it over her head and shoulders, and slip into her clogs to walk round the corner to the mill. So, when we look at this shawl, we are looking at the typical clothing of a large part of the Rossendale workforce. 

Workpeople Leaving Ordnance Mill, Blackburn (1900), black and white film. Credit: BFI National Archive. 

Why shawls and what were they like? 
It is thought that the Lancashire shawl developed from a smaller neck shawl in early Victorian years, that would have been worn with a poke bonnet. As the bonnet went out of fashion, shawls became larger and were used to cover the head as well as the shoulders. It could be held in place by a large safety pin under the chin, or wrapped round the body to be knotted at the back, or simply held by hand at the front. It was a simple form of outerwear.  

Whilst there might be smarter shawls for high-days and holidays, or cotton or silk ones for smartening up a costume on a summers day, the one we see here is an everyday shawl. 

An everyday work shawl would typically be a large woven wool square in dark colours with a subdued pattern such as checks or plaid, like the one in our collection. The shawl might be bordered by a fringe. Any local shop that sold clothes would sell shawls, though most women would expect their shawl to last many years.  

These shawls were not a decorative piece of clothing, but they gave warmth and some privacy for the woman as she walked to and fro, between house, shops and the cotton mill. It was easy to quickly adjust the shawl around head and shoulders to offer protection against cold, wind and rain, or to carry it, if the weather warmed up. The shawl could be easily removed and stored at work. It would not be worn in the mill due to the heat, and also the dangers of being caught in machinery. 

Humorous postcard ©Touchstones Rochdale, Rochdale Arts & Heritage Service. 

A shawl could also be used  … 

  • to wrap your baby close to your body 
  • to sit on,  
  • to cover someone, like a makeshift blanket 
  • to wear indoors in a drafty house 
  • to carry things 
  • to cover things 
  • to hide the face 
  • to protect your hair. 

Shawls weren’t just worn to go to work. They were a useful item of clothing for many occasions, and were indeed a trademark of the feisty Lancashire working woman. The Museum of London holds a postcard in its collection showing a ‘Lancashire Lass in Clogs and Shawl being escorted through the Palace Yard’ by two police officers. Like many northern women, she was a suffragette. 

A Lancashire Lass in Clogs & Shawl Being “Escorted” Through Palace Yard, Photographer: G. W Edward, (1907) © Museum of London. 

Written by Jackie Taylor (Volunteer at The Whitaker)

Sources, Lancashire Clogs and Shawls. 
Patriarchal Constraints on Women Workers’ Mobilization: The Lancashire Female Cotton Operatives 1842-1919 Author: Harold Benenson. Source: The British Journal of Sociology, 1993, Vol. 44, No. 4, pp. 613- 633 

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