amy azzaritopast & present

past & present: paisley (part 1)

by Amy Azzarito

illustration by julia rothman

I’m still working my way through the pattern history requests! Whew!  (We’ve had Toile & Liberty of London, so far!) Today, I thought we’d take a little look at paisley – an Indian design named for a Scottish town.  Stay tuned a little later for my paisley round-up! (Thanks for the request, Bee!)

(Part II round up is right here.)

[from left: roman mosaic of date palm tree from brooklyn museum and date palm motif from victoriana]

Paisley Inspired by Nature
There are many theories as to the genesis of the paisley pattern. One theory is that it originated in ancient Babylon and took its inspiration from the growing shoot of the date palm. For ancient Babylonians, the date palm represented the tree of life – the palm was the source of their food, wine, thatch, wood, paper and string and represented prosperity and plenty. The motif spread from Babylon to India where it was incorporated into all types of design.

victorian paisley shawl c. 1870 via windham textile & history museum

From India to Europe via the East India Company
The East India Company had the monopoly on delivering luxury goods to Britain from the East. The Kashmir shawl, so highly prized that it was often the gift of choice for nobility, was quickly appreciated  by officers in the East India Company. So taken with the quality of the wool (cashmere), those officers began to bring a few shawls back to Britain as gifts. The Kashmir shawl quickly became all the rage. The shawl became firmly cemented as a fashionable item when Empress Josephine in France began wearing them as a compliment to her “antique style” of dress (see image below). (Josephine was said to have owned hundreds of shawls.) Everyone wanted one of these rare Kashmir shawls but at £210-315 it was certainly not something everyone could afford.

josephine, empress of france by baron antoine-jean gros, 1808

It’s all in the Materials – Kashmir
British textile manufactures seized the opportunity to reproduce these Kashmir shawls. The real hurdle was in creating a shawl that had the same feel as Kashmir. The Himalayan goat produced an underfleece to protect it from the intense cold – this underfleece (known as pashmina) was shed every summer and would be collected from rocks and bushes. The higher in the mountain, the better quality the fleece would be. To supplement this limited supply, domesticated goats were also raised for their fleece but even these goats produced only two pounds of down each year (which could be used to weave one 4 foot by 6 inch shawl). The earliest British imitations were priced at £20 and were made mainly of silk.

CLICK HERE for more about Paisley!

paisley design via the new york public library

Goats Don’t Travel Well
Attempts to bring the goats to Europe failed – in one instance the Brits obtained 50 goats but unthinkingly shipped the males and females separately. The females were lost at sea and only four males survived the journey to Scotland only to die soon after their arrival. Some goats did make their way from the Himalayas to Britain, but they didn’t produce the same quality fleece as the goats in the mountains. The weavers in Britain were forced to continue their experimentation with different combinations of silk, wool and cotton in an effort to achieve a suitable imitation.

paisley, scotland 1850 via the new york public library

Paisley, Scotland
So finally, how did this town in Scotland lend its name to the Indian pattern? Although towns throughout Europe produced the Kashmir shawl, with the “pine” design, the weavers in Paisley, Scotland reproduced the shawls the most economically and for the longest period.  When women shopped for shawls, they would choose from a selection of “Paisleys” – the word referring both to the actual shawl and its distinctive pattern. Changing fashion dictated the end of the paisley shawl – by 1870, the bustle was à la mode and the shawl was just in the way of showing off all the frills and ruffles and the back of the dress. Although the shawl went out of fashion, the pattern has become part of our design lexicon.

iranian paisley hand-stamp

Facts to Know

  1. The final step in the shawl weaving process was washing of the shawl – necessary because it was the custom in Paisley for the weaver’s wife to wear the shawl until it was due to be delivered to the warehouse.
  2. In the early days, Paisely weavers were know for being intellectual thinkers. It was a quiet job that could be left for hours without any damage to the cloth. Weaving was done in looms shops of four to six looms and the weavers could discuss and debate the politics of the day while they worked. They also shared their advances and techniques – important to making Paisley into a strong weaving town.
  3. The most important advance to weaving technology was the invention of the Jacquard loom in France. The loom was directed by punched cards with punched holes, each row of which corresponds to one row of the design. A large quantity of expensive cards were required for each pattern. Today, the loom is considered an important step in the development of computing technology.

Books to Read
The Paisley Pattern: The Official Illustrated History – There are certainly other books out there on paisley (if you have a fav, let me know!), but this 1989 publication proved to be the most helpful when writing this column.

Suggested For You


  • A lot of my illustrative work centres around paisley and its appropriation/ history! I’m very excited to see a post on it at Design Sponge :D

  • I really do love the paisley pattern. I am Indian and many of our traditional clothes use this pattern on it. I think its just really beautiful.

    The history behind that pattern is very interesting to read. The way that the pattern has gone from being embroidery on shawls to be seen on all sorts of furniture and other goods, just shows the diversity of the pattern. It has now been developed and reused in many ways to reinvent it and make it look modern, Indian, traditional, simplistic etc. I love the way that the pattern is used on wallpaper. It gives a elegant feel in any way that it is used and I suppose that that comes from the fact that Kashmir shawls were so expensive.

  • I ADORE Paisley, always have. In fact, I have a Paisley stencil that I have been dying to use in a room all over the walls. I have a customer that just might be interested…I shall say a little prayer to the Paisley Gods… :o)

  • The old school patterns, designs, production and craftswomenship fell victim to the industrial revolution. Hopefully digital technology will allow surface textile designers an opportunity to explore finely crafted, complex textile design again.
    I’d love to see an exploration of the fabrics of cultures other than European.
    Asian, African, and South American traditional fabrics are rich in color, pattern and design. Happy Earth Day!

  • It may be interesting to note that Kashmir shawls were originally worn by ment in the 16th century Mogul court, and by Mameluk warriors in Egypt. It was through Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign that the shawl was introduced in France, and Napoleon himself was portrayed wearing a Kashmir shawl wrapped around the waist in a small portrait by Jean-Leon Gerome and in the colossal painting by Baron Gros, where he is shown visiting victims of the plague in Jaffa. Taken to France as gifts, the Kashmir shawl became a fashionable woman’s indispensable item, not only for its intrinsic beauty, but as a warm and stylish cover to the decollete gowns of the Directoire and Empire periods.

    As cited in the post, it was the empress Josephine who was responsible for the Kashmir’s shawl vertiginous rise as the ultimate fashion statement of her time. Josephine also made decorative and practical use of shawls by draping them over couches and beds, turning them into pillos, and even cushions for her pet dogs!

    Thank you for a wonderful post!

  • Paisley came from Hindu motifs originally, I think that would be a positive revision/addition this article

Leave a Reply

Design*Sponge reserves the right to restrict comments that do not contribute constructively to the conversation at hand, that comment on people's physical appearance, contain profanity, personal attacks, hate speech or seek to promote a personal or unrelated business. Our goal is to create a safe space where everyone (commenters, subjects of posts and moderators) feels comfortable to speak. Please treat others the way you would like to be treated and be willing to take responsibility for the impact your words may have on others. Disagreement, differences of opinion and heated discussion are welcome, but comments that do not seek to have a mature and constructive dialogue will not be published. We moderate all comments with great care and do not delete any lightly. Please note that our team (writers, moderators and guests) deserve the same right to speak and respond as you do, and your comments may be responded to or disagreed with. These guidelines help us maintain a safe space and work toward our goal of connecting with and learning from each other.