The Unequaled Beauty of Paisley Shawls
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, psychedelic paisley became a symbol of change for a generation of young men and women dissatisfied with the Vietnam War. This protest personality is only one of many reincarnations of the varied and intricate floral teardrop pattern that originated in India and spread around the world through European trade.
The origins of paisley date back to ancient times. The drooping teardrop motif was originally called buti (anglicized to buteh), a Hindi word meaning little flower. Also referred to as “pine,” the design has been likened to the fruit of the mango tree or the shoot of the date palm, regarded by many as the tree of life. The latter is an ancient religious symbol related to fertility and renewal, with origins in many ancient civilizations.
The paisley design was woven into shawls originating in Kashmir, a once-independent country north of India whose fertile valleys are surrounded by the Himalayas. Documented evidence of the origins of the Kashmiri shawl dates back to the mid-fifteenth century, when Sultan Zayn Al-Abidin of Kashmir summoned from Turkestan highly skilled weavers who were already using the twill tapestry technique to build looms and weave shawls. Although probably intended for use by the sultan and his family, the shawls were eventually traded throughout northern India and Central Asia. In the second half of the eighteenth century, the British East India Company introduced the Kashmiri shawl to Europe. Early documentation of Indian woolen shawls being worn in Europe is found in Laurence Sterne’s 1767 Journal to Eliza.
The Kashmiri shawls were made of pashmina (Persian for wool), a protein animal fiber from the undercoats of wild Asian mountain goats. The fiber was gathered from the shrubs and rough rocks the animals rubbed against when molting their winter coats. The original Kashmiri shawls were made by one of two methods: kanikar or amlikar. Kanikar, from the word kani, meaning shuttle, refers to the technique of weaving the shawl in a twill tapestry technique. Sometimes as many as fifty shuttles were required, each carrying a specific colored weft or filling thread. As in traditional tapestry, each weft thread was woven in only where that particular color was called for in the pattern. The weaving of such shawls was labor intensive, each taking a weaver between two and three years to complete.
Amlikar shawls were made of a plain ground fabric with the decorative pine motifs embroidered after the weaving was complete. Since many embroiderers could work simultaneously on different sections, a single amlikar shawl took considerably less time to complete.
Because of the cost (200 to 300 guineas for the earliest woven examples) and scarcity of shawls from Kashmir, the manufacture of shawls “in imitation of Indian” was encouraged in Europe, where the initial cost of 20 guineas eventually dropped to 3 guineas. In the 1780s and 1790s, attempts to produce shawls were made first in Norwich, Eng1and, and then in Edinburgh, Scotland. Efforts to domesticate and introduce the Kashmir goat into Europe during the height of the shawls’ popularity proved futile when the goats failed to thrive in the continent’s lower altitude. As a result, European shawls were made of silk, wool, or silk and wool blends; the hand, softness, and drape were always inferior to the original.
By 1808, professional weavers in the small town of Paisley, outside Glasgow, Scotland, were producing shawls in the Kashmiri pattern, hence the name “paisley.” Production of shawls “in imitation of Indian” began not long after in Lyons, France. Lyons had long been a center of European silk weaving, and France was Europe’s established center of fashion, so that country came to dictate the Continent’s taste in shawls. Eventually, British manufacturers were imitating the French imitations of Kashmiri originals.
In Europe, the shawls were woven on draw looms, the pattern weft or filling yarn passing from selvedge to selvedge. The shawl-weaving industry was complex, with numerous specialists involved. Designers drew the latest designs, craftsmen translated them into weaving patterns, and weavers dressed the loom. The master weaver wove the cloth, following a paper grid of the color changes. A draw boy sat atop the loom and manipulated the individual warp threads so that the colored wefts would be seen only where they occurred in the pattern. Invented in the early 1800s and widely used by the 1830s, the Jacquard loom attachment revolutionized the production of shawls. The Jacquard attachment used punch cards much like those of a player piano to raise and lower individual warp threads, eliminating the need for a draw boy. Once the warp was on the loom, the Jacquard attachment automatically wove the design according to the pattern of holes in the warp punch cards.
Both the shape of the “pine” motif and the shape of the shawl changed over time. The earliest shawls from Kashmir were long and narrow, typically measuring 9 feet long by 20 inches wide. More ornamental than useful, these were the casually draped shawls often visible in late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century portraits of ladies. There is a wonderful painting of Napoleon’s Empress Josephine by Antoine-Jean Gros (1771–1835) titled L’Impératrice Josephine in which she not only has a Kashmir shawl draped over her shoulder but is wearing a gown made of shawls. Other shawls depicted in period paintings include the 1790 Portrait of the Marquise de Sorcy de Thélusson by Jacques Louis David (1748–1825) and the 1805 Madame Rivière by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780–1867).
The floral motifs on this long, narrow shawl were generally limited to the edges with perhaps a narrow band running along the length of the shawl. Flowers typical of northern India were arranged at random within the shape of the pine. Over time, as exports increased into Europe and the Kashmiri weavers addressed the preferences of their buyers, the shawls came to include typical European floral motifs.
Early examples of square shawls measured about 3 feet square. Classified as handkerchiefs to lower the export duties, they became known as handkerchief shawls. In time, these “handkerchiefs” grew to a size of 6 feet square, and the floral motifs went around all four sides. A variation of the handkerchief shawl was the “foldover,” in which a unique application of the border design caused it to show on all edges when the shawl was folded in a triangle.
The third distinct shape in which shawls were made was the plaid. Measuring up to 12 by 5 feet, these shawls were called plaid after the Gaelic word for blanket, not because they had a series of warp and filling stripes. A “three-fourths plaid” measured 8 by 4 feet and became the normal outdoor accessory of the mid-nineteenth century. It was the preference of Queen Victoria, who was quite supportive of the weaving industry in Paisley.
Black was the color of choice for a shawl’s solid center, but white or scarlet centers were preferred for summer wear. Green and burgundy were dominant colors for plaids with overall patterns, and harlequin or striped shawls also enjoyed a period of popularity.
Over time, the solid ground in the center of the shawl became progressively smaller until it disappeared entirely. The shape of the paisley design also changed: it went from a delicate and naturalistic floral motif to a tightly packed pyramid of flowers above a vase to a shape of curling pointed leaves filled with floral motifs. By 1870, when the shawl’s popularity was waning, the paisley had become a long, swirling, tear-shaped motif typical of what is often described as the excessiveness of Victorian design.
One other feature was typical of paisley shawls. Along the width edges, which were almost always fringed, were a series of small decorative motifs. Although their meaning was most certainly lost on Europeans, the motifs were known as fringe gates and represented a mihrab, the niche in the inner wall of a mosque that indicates the direction of Mecca.
The paisley shawl fell victim to changing fashion trends in the 1870s. In the early decades of the century, the empire dress, a simple chemise modeled after the dress of ancient Greece and Rome, was the fashion choice, and the paisley shawl was the perfect accompaniment. As the century progressed, women were severely corseted and increasingly fuller skirts balanced huge sleeves. A wire-hoop petticoat, the “cage americaine,” replaced multiple petticoats to fill out the full skirts. After mid-century, the front of the skirt began to collapse and the fullness moved to the back as the bustle, which from 1870 to 1890 provided a bizarre appearance for women. The paisley shawl just did not work with this dress structure. Other, more fitted outer garments challenged the popularity of the shawl and won.
Nonetheless, the paisley shawl has become a classic and a favorite with many who collect textiles. The motif itself survives, enjoying periodic revivals.
A collector of paisley shawls and a quilter, Linda Carlson was the curator of the Historic Costume and Textiles Collection at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. This piece was originally published in Knitting Traditions 2017.
(Originally posted on May 9, 2018; updated on May 21, 2019.)
The Paisley Pattern: The Official Illustrated History. Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books, 1987. Out of print.
Ratti and Paisley. New York: Fashion Institute of Technology, 1987. Out of print.
Levi-Strauss, Monique. The Cashmere Shawl. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1988. Out of print.
Redly, Valerie. Paisley Patterns. New York: Portland House, 1989. Out of print.
Rossbach, Ed. The Art of Paisley. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1980. Out of print.