By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2012. All Rights Reserved.
Indian textile block, single boteh motif, carved wood (photo ©2008 Liz Hager)
Very few design motifs have withstood the vicissitudes of fashion as well as paisley. On the one hand, its cacophonous and ebullient elements can be channeled into a sophisticated all-over pattern. On the other hand, individual pine cones can be released on their own to create a simple repeat. Through the centuries its motifs have been endlessly transformed, embellished, and recombined to great success. No doubt paisley has endured because of its versatility; it’s a supremely good example of textilian natural selection.
Paisley’s noble and exotic associations have surely enhanced general enthusiasm for the motif. After all, who could resist ornament whose path has traversed such far flung and diverse historical signposts as ancient Babylon, Mughal courts, Napoleon’s North African campaigns, the British Raj, the Industrial Revolution, and the Summer of Love?
Jan & Caspar Commelin, plate from , 1697-1701, hand-colored engravings (courtesy Christie’s)
The characteristic paisley pine cone, or tear drop, was derived from the Indian boteh or buta (a term which stems from the Persian word for flower). The Paisley Museum suggests that the tear drop outline was influenced by a more ancient motif—the Babylonian stylization of the palm leaf. Because palms supplied so many of the necessities of human life—food, drink, fibers for weaving and shelter—many ancient cultures viewed it as the ‘Tree of Life” and absorbed it into their ornamental lexicons.
The boteh began as a fairly simple and naturalistic plant rendering used in both fabric and art; it was an attempt by artists and weavers of the Mughal court to imitate European botanical studies typical of the 17th century. Stylistically, the evolution of the boteh also owes much to traditional Persian floral design, as it was expressed in carpets, tiles, and miniatures. By the 1700s, however, the boteh had become embellished with additional flowers and tendrils. Eventually all those elements morphed into slender conical “tree” with with a bent tip. Finally the motif evolved into the elongated serpentine abstraction that we recognize as a paisley today.
Anonymous Indian Artist, Motif from Kashmir Shawl: Pheerozee (Turquoise Color), No. 23, By Order of Mahummud Azeem Khan, ca. 1822 – 1823
Gouache on paper, varnished; sheet: 15 3/4 x 6 1/2″
(©Metropolitan Museum of Art).
Weavers in the province of Kashmir had been weaving fine woolen shawls from as early as the 11th century. Shawls were made from the wool undercoat (pashmina) of half-wild Tibetan goats and woven according to a specific “twill tapestry” method that can be dated with certainty to the 15th century. This was an intricate and time-consuming process that could take up to 18 months to complete on one loom. The horizontal weft threads alone formed the pattern, but these did not run the full width of the cloth as in plain weave; rather the weft threads were inserted by hand only where a particular color was needed, then woven without the use of a shuttle back and forth around the warp threads. To create the larger shawl, separately-woven borders were sewn to the primary square, often overbound with silk.
Beginning in the 16th century, the Mughal emperors elevated Kashmiri shawls to noble status, typically wearing them as sashes around their waists or across their chest. (The English word “shawl” actually derives from the Indo-Persian shal, which loosely refers to a “fine woven woollen fabric” not an article of clothing.) Turkistan weavers, enticed to Kashmir for their renown skills, left their mark on the garment, as did later Afghan and Sikh conquerers.
Dochalla (shawl), 18th century, Kashmir,
cotton and silk twill weave
(The Textile Museum)
Legend has it that the European craze for cashmere began at the end of the 18th century, when a blind man from Baghdad visited Kashmir (the northwestern segment of the Indian subcontinent), and was presented with an orange shawl by the Afghan Governor of Kashmir. The blind man in turn gave the shawl to Muhammad Ali Pasha, the Khedive (prince) of Eqypt, who in turn re-gifted it to Napoleon (perhaps as a gesture of peace at the conclusion of French commander’s successful Eqyptian campaigns?). Upon his return to Paris, Napoleon bestowed it upon his wife Josephine, who enthusiastically added the piece to her costume, draping it over her shoulder and arms as was the custom in pre-Regency Europe. For reasons that had as much to do with flattering the Empress as with the luxurious feel of the cloth, Kashmiri shawls soon became an indispensable accessory of Parisian aristocratic couture. Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of Marquise de Sorcy Thélousson features an example of these early “border-only” shawls.
Paisley woolen shawl, 1850s (photo courtesy of Christie’s)
Perhaps there is truth in this legend; certainly by the early 1800s a thriving trade connected Kashmir and Europe. The making of shawls constituted a primary source of revenue in Kashmir in the early years of the 19th century. In 1821, William Moorcroft, an agent for the East India Company, reported counting as many as 50 looms in one house. Typically shawls were distributed to the East through Central Asian merchants, and to the West by agents in Europe and Russia.
The Kashmir shawl arrived in England in the mid-18th century, not probably through France, but through agents of the British East India Company. It’s easy to imagine why it quickly became an article of high-fashion there too, given the British penchant for romanticizing the “mysterious East.” Shawls remained prohibitively expensive until the English devoted considerable resources to producing a domestic copy. Although the earliest imitations of Kashmir patterns came from Edinburgh, the English town of Norwich was the first established European center of shawl weaving.
Alfred Stevens, Will You Go Out with Me, Fido?, 1859,
oil on canvas, 30.5 x 25.2 inches
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)
In 1812, an inventor in the town of Paisley (just west of Glasgow, Scotland) introduced a device that allowed five shuttles to be held on a loom simultaneously, thus greatly facilitated the weaving of multicolored designs. Buddies (citizens of Paisley) excelled at pirating designs and quick turn around of goods, practices that allowed them to soon dominate the trade. With the advent of mechanized looms in the 1860s, the name of the town, like scotchtape, became the brand name for shawls and the design on them.
The Industrial Revolution put the price of woven shawls within reach of every English lady. Paisley proved so popular that European manufacturers eventually dispensed with the weaving altogether, instead using copper rolls to print the designs on a cotton plain weave. In moving to the wider world of patterned fabrics, paisley took its first steps into the mass market. Ironically, it proved so successful as a printed design that, by the later 19th century, even Indian textile producers had taken up the habit of printing paisley designs on cotton, although a lot of their fabrics were hand-printed using wooden textile blocks the one above.
Fragment, roller printed cotton, India, early 20th century.
It could have been the introduction of the bustle in the late 1860s that caused paisley’s (temporary) demise. Because bustles disrupted the flow of the large shawl, women largely abandoned the wearing of shawls, substituting shorter jackets. Or maybe, in a classic case of fashion trickle-down, upper-class ladies abandoned Kashmir shawls precisely because they had reached down-market status.
Still paisley managed to hang on through decades six decades of the 20th century as a printed fabric pattern, even if it was from time to time relegated to cravats and tablecloths. As the hippie generation fanned out across Asia on their journeys of self-discovery, it was just a matter of time until paisley was rediscovered. The design element came back with a vengeance. In the “anything goes” era of the late 60s, paisley was liberated from previous constraints, as the boteh assumed oversized proportions and a psychedelic color palette that outstripped even the brightest reds of the 19th century.
Could there be any stronger testament to the enduring fortitude of the little pine cone motif than this dress from a 21st century runway?
D. O. Wijnands—The Botany of the Commelins
James Trilling—Ornament: A Modern Perspective
James Trilling—The Language of Ornament (World of Art series)
John Irwin—The Kashmir Shawl
Valerie Reilly—The Paisley Pattern: The Official Illustrated History
More paisley images—V&A, 1890s tea gown, flapper era, 40s, 60s, 60s
Kashmiri Shawl: From Jamavar to Paisley
Scottish Textile Heritage
Paisley motifs collected by William Moorcroft