Perfect Paisley: Get Wild With Your Style December 19, 2015

Perfect-PaisleyIn 1842, Queen Victoria purchased 17 paisley shawls–and the weavers of a little Scottish town called Paisley would be forever grateful. Over the next few decades, these elegant shawls, some with richly embroidered borders, others with opulent all-over patterns, took the world by storm, only to be cast aside as “moth thrivers” in the 1870s, victims of mass production and fickle fashion.

Today these luscious textiles, which once fluttered from the Jacquard looms of Scotland in such quantities that the swirling patterns became known in English as “Paisley” after the key town of its manufacture, are once again prized. “The paisley motif is enduring,” says Laura Fisher, a New York City antique textile dealer. “Even though it’s been interpreted in countless ways, it always seems fresh.” And, she adds, “I’ve never seen an ugly paisley. Even the youngest, cheapest paisleys produced for the mass market are appealing. And the best are glorious.” Although millions of shawls were churned our during the 19th century in Paisley–a center for Scotland’s skilled silk weavers late in the 1700s–paisley’s origin isn’t Scottish at all. In the foothills of the Himalayas lies the exotic Kashmir region of northern India, where shawls were woven as far back as the 11th century. It was during the 15th century, however, under the rule of the Persian Moguls, that India’s shawl industry began to flourish, with the paisley shawl eventually becoming a sought-after commodity by the European elite. The word shawl even owes its roots to the Persian shal, meaning “woven fabric.” Handmade on simple horizontal looms, the paisley shawls of Kashmir were created from the silken under fleeces of Tibetan mountain goats. Known as pashm or pashmina, this fiber is superbly soft, incredibly warm, unusually lustrous, and most of all, rare: Each goat produces only a few ounces of this precious hair per season. In addition, it took two weavers two or three years to complete a single shawl, making them costly status symbols. But the end product was worth it: richly shimmering, lightweight, and exotic in design. The familiar paisley design is believed to have evolved from the Hindu buta or boteh, a “tree of life” motif resembling a flame or teardrop. Over the centuries, the buta became more and more stylized, finally emerging as the sensuous, “swirling” paisley we know today.

Kashmir shawls charmed the wives and daughters of British East India Co. officers who, along with other traders and military men, returned from colonial India with shawls in tow. In 1801, Napoleon was said to have returned from his Egyptian campaign with several lush shawls for Josephine; by 1809 she had acquired 60 of these treasures.¬† “Fashionable women wore them with the silk or muslin Empire gowns of that era,” explains Lynn Felsher, curator of textiles at New York City’s Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, noting that they were light enough to drape into graceful, classical folds, but substantial enough to provide warmth.

Soon every woman hungered for a paisley shawl–or two. White shawls became popular Victorian bridal and christening gifts. European mills in Scotland (Paisley, Norwich, and Edinburgh) and France (Lyons, Nimes, and Paris) raced to produce imitation “Kashmirs” of silk, wool, or a blend of the two, on machine-run looms. Two forms (long and square) were made, although it wasn’t until the introduction of the Jacquard loom in the 1 830s that the colors and patterns approached the complexity of the Indian originals. But Jacquard looms allowed border motifs to sprawl over the shawl’s center, for richer, more elaborate designs. As eastern patterns were altered to appeal to western tastes, these copies found their way back to India, where the hybrids were copied, till it was almost¬† impossible to determine their place of manufacture. Eventually, Paisley dominated the market with shawls selling for a fraction of the cost of the handmade versions. Paisley’s shawls were typically long and characterized by “elongated botehs in chromatic tones from deep orange to pale reds and blues,” says Oriental carpets dealer Frank Ames in his book The Kashmir Shawl (Antique Collector’s Club; 1997; $89).

“As with any luxury item, there were better ones and lesser ones, and a lot had to do with what you could afford,” notes Lynn Felsher. In France, the most refined shawls hailed from Paris; Lyons was known for producing silk shawls and Nimes (and Reims) for more popular versions, says Ames. French shawls were especially outstanding, he explains, with sophisticated colors and talented weavers. “Architecturals” depicting mosques and Gothic buildings and “pictorials” with figures and animals are “rare and wonderful,” adds Laura Fisher. “The most extraordinary pictorials were done for Victorian textile competitions. If you find one, you have a true treasure.” By midcentury, to speed production and make shawls more affordable, Indian shawl makers were crafting embroidered and printed wares and weaving shawls in pieces that were intended to be sewn together later, reducing production time to six weeks. As fashions changed (from Empire gowns to hoop-skirted dresses with frill sleeves), shawls changed, too. Longer shawls with bordered ends and yard-long squares with plain centers and narrow borders (to fold triangularly) gave way to enormous shawls. “Some were overwhelmingly large, roughly five feet wide by 12 or 13 feet long,” Lynn Felsher explains. “There was an art to wearing and draping them.” But the cycles of fashion were rapidly spinning. By 1870, fitted coats were on the horizon–far more flattering with the new bustle than a now old-fashioned paisley. But even as the shawl’s allure faded, the distinctive paisley motif survived, reappearing in wallpaper and fabrics, ties and smoking jackets, decade after decade, as befits the established classic that it is.


Every so often fashion’s continuing fascination with paisley is revived. Late in the 1960s and throughout much of the 70s, “loose, swirling psychedelic paisleys related to the work of artist Peter Max, were the perfect counterpoint to the also-popular mod geometric style of Andre Courreges,” says Alice Lindholm, co-owner of Right to the Moon Alice, a wholesale warehouse in Cooks Falls N.Y., that deals in vintage clothing and textiles. Hippie-inspired paisleys in bright blues hot pink, and neon orange were worn in New York City’s Greenwich Village and San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury then translated into a high-fashion peasant look by designers like Yves Saint Laurent. Indian-print bedspreads, popularized by the trendy Fifth Avenue store Azuma were the rage, as were brightly colored scarves by Vera (right) and other accessories, like this L&M tapestry handbag (right).

Today prices for 1960s and 70s paisley clothing range from $25 to $40 for a simple shirt to $75 to $150 for a designer label–bargains compared to 19th century paisley shawls which can fetch from $500 to $1-500 and more.

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