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The Paisley Shawl: Threads of history

Updated on April 8, 2012
Paisley pattern
Paisley pattern

The paisley shawl produced in textile mills in Renfrewshire, Scotland during the 1800s was a popular accessory that satisfied the Victorian taste for opulence and exoticism. Originating in India, the typical Eastern motifs and rare materials that characterized the Kashmir shawl were modified and adapted for mass marketing in Europe. Influenced throughout the nineteenth century by improved weaving technology, British design sensibility and changes in ladies' fashion, paisley shawls have a history as colourful and complex as the patterns woven into them.

Antoine-Jean Gros, "Josephine, Empress of France", (c.1808) Musee d'Art et d'Histoire, Palais Massena, Nice
Antoine-Jean Gros, "Josephine, Empress of France", (c.1808) Musee d'Art et d'Histoire, Palais Massena, Nice

The Empress starts a trend

Casually draped over one shoulder, the Kashmir shawl worn with a high-waisted gown became the ultimate fashion statement in French court society at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Every fine lady wanted to emulate the elegant style of Empress Josephine, who reputedly owned hundreds of exquisite shawls. The Kashmir shawl showed up in France as a direct result of wars waged in foreign countries. Soldiers fighting in Napoleon's Egyptian campaigns brought the shawls home as gifts for their wives. The shawls were handwoven in India and Pakistan by craftsmen using the twill tapestry technique, and each one was a unique work of art. The fabric itself was extraordinary; lightweight and extremely soft, made from the finest fibre available - hair from the undercoat of Tibetan wild goats. Bits of hair left behind on thorny bushes during the moulting season were collected in the western Himalayan mountains and sold to weavers in India. The best quality goat fleece was left in its natural state to show off the fabric's lustrous sheen and creamy colour. Shawls were usually plain in the centre, and bordered with intricate, curvilinear patterns called "buteh". These organic-looking pod shapes resembled date palm shoots, a symbol associated with the tree of life.

Jacquard loom
Jacquard loom | Source

New Technology

In 1804, Frenchman Joseph Marie Jacquard revolutionized the weaving process by introducing a loom that operated with a punch card system. Handloom weavers had previously employed a child as a draw boy. The youngster sat on top of the loom and was responsible for raising and lowering heddles attached to warp threads according to the directions of the weaver. The Jacquard loom eliminated the child's job, while improving efficiency in cloth production and increasing accuracy, as it worked on a programmed binary system that repeated patterns exactly. Weaving moved 25 times faster, and rapidly progressed from being a cottage industry to a factory process as the Jacquard loom was adopted in textile centres throughout Europe.

William Holman Hunt, "A Lady in an Interior," c.1850  Maas Gallery, London
William Holman Hunt, "A Lady in an Interior," c.1850 Maas Gallery, London

Paisley, a Scottish mill town

By 1820, the town of Paisley in Renfrewshire, Scotland was producing shawls that replicated the expensive Kashmir examples imported by the British East India Company. While the genuine article was priced at 70 to 100 pounds, the Paisley look-alike sold for 12 pounds. Agents were sent to London to copy the patterns from Kashmir shawls and within eight days the product was available for export from Scottish mills.

Paisley, the place name, was now used to describe the pattern that adorned the famous factory-made shawls. Colours became brighter and patterns included more representational rather than abstract, geometric elements, with flowers and foliage intertwined in all-over, busy designs. The fabric used in Scotland was a wool/silk blend rather than costly Tibetan goat hair.

Attempts were made to introduce cashmere goats to England and display cases at the Great Exhibition of the Work of Industry in London in 1851 included two paisley shawls woven from local cashmere. The exhibition catalogue described these items as silk warp, with weft of cashmere fibre taken from goats raised by Prince Albert at Windsor Palace.

Designers working in Paisley during the mid-1800s became known for the intricacy of their shawl patterns. George Haite (1825-1871) was perhaps the best-known fabric designer, and his original watercolours and drawings can be found preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Haite's designs were often inspired by the spiral forms of pinecones and the seed segments of pomegranates.

Detail of Scottish shawl, 1870 Collection of Brooklyn Museum, NY
Detail of Scottish shawl, 1870 Collection of Brooklyn Museum, NY

The Whim of Fashion

The shape of ladies' wear changed in the late 1880s as bustles elevated the backs of skirts into an exaggerated profile. Shawls no longer draped properly over the extended "back shelf" and they quickly became passe as women tried to achieve a stylish S-shaped silhouette.

The affordability and dumbing-down of paisley shawls also contributed to a decline in interest. By 1870, a Jacquard woven shawl cost one pound sterling and a printed cotton version could be purchased for only a few shillings. The fact that the shawl was so common in Britain made it less chic.

A Wedding Gift

An article in "The Herald" newspaper dated February 4, 1922 reported that a paisley shawl was being presented to Princess Mary on the occasion of her marriage to Henry, Viscount Lascelles. The paisley shawl had been a traditional bridal present in Britain during the nineteenth century, and the 1922 offering to the Princess by the women of Paisley, Scotland was a gesture that recalled the glory days of the textile industry. "The Herald" writer even quoted a few lines of John Keats' poem "The Eve of St. Agnes" in this descriptive passage:

"The ravages of time and fashion notwithstanding there are still extant - often in ancient family recesses lapped in lavender- many fine examples of the graceful old garment. It has not escaped the zeal of the collector, and there are discriminating connoisseurs who can display the shawl in almost myriad variety, woven in silk, in cashmere, in lawn or in cotton, in the jewelled colours and involved designs of the East,

"Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes,

As are the tiger-moth's deep-damasked wings."

Paisley prints featured in Spring 2012 collections
Paisley prints featured in Spring 2012 collections


The paisley shawl survives today as a practical fashion accessory that adds colour, lively pattern and soft draping to any ordinary outfit. In spring 2012 collections, a number of famous designers - Stella McCartney, Jil Sander, Etro - are featuring splashy paisley patterns on everything from silk blouses to purses. Perhaps the paisley shawl will once again be considered the "piece de resistance" in a stylish woman's wardrobe.


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    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Voted up and awesome! I love to read about the history of clothing and this was so interesting. Also love paisley shawls and am wearing one right now.

    • Vanderleelie profile image

      Vanderleelie 5 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

      Thank you, Dolores. I am inspired by your own fashion articles and have learned a great deal from them. I also have a favourite paisley shawl that travels with me and is especially nice to wear for warmth while on the airplane.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      This is a marvelous hub. It appeals to me as a historian and it appeals to me on the level of beauty and art. You write very well, of course. and have distributed marvelous pictures throughout the hub. Very nice work. :) Sharing with followers.

    • Vanderleelie profile image

      Vanderleelie 4 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

      phdast7: Thank you for your comment and for sharing this hub. I appreciate your perspective both as a historian and as a fellow hub writer.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 4 years ago from Indiana

      This is a nice historical piece with wonderful pictures. I learned something new here today!

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 4 years ago from Deep South, USA

      I've always liked paisley, and this hub provides a wealth of information about the textile's background. Enjoyed it tremendously. Voted Up++++


    • Vanderleelie profile image

      Vanderleelie 4 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

      Kris Heeter: Thanks for reading this hub and taking the time to leave a comment here.

      JayeWisdom: I have a fondness for the paisley design, too and am delighted to see its return as a trend in fashion. Thanks for stopping by.

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