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.)
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
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.
Facts to Know
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.