The paisley form, signifying fertility, reproduction, abundance, was thus continually introduced into decorative work whether sacred or secular. Through time it became more and more conventionalised and varied in form. Matthew Blair, The Paisley Shawl and the Men Who Produced It, 1904
Since it first started appearing on shawls favoured by ladies in the 1800s, the Paisley pattern went in and out of fashion many times, coming back in some of the current collections. Today it is the 166th anniversary of Sma' Shot Day (well, guess that's a bit too obscure even for Google's Doodles...), originally celebrated in Paisley, Scotland, on the first Saturday in July to commemorate a historic weavers' victory in their negotiations for fair pay and conditions from the town's shawl manufacturers. So for today let's leave the glamour of catwalks behind and rediscover the history of the Paisley pattern and of the workers who made the famous shawls.
The pattern commonly known as “Paisley” is named after the eponymous town in Scotland, but it didn't originate there. The pattern can indeed be traced back to ancient Babylonian civilisation where it was used as a symbol to represent the growing shoot of the date palm, also regarded as the "tree of life", since it provided Babylonians with food, drink, clothing and shelter.
The symbol first appeared to decorate a 17th century Indian shawl from Kashmir used by men. The shawls arrived in Britain in the 18th century when the soldiers and administrators of the British East India Company brought them back as presents for their loved ones. As the shawls became more fashionable, the Company started importing them and, since demand exceeded supply and the cost of the original Kashmir shawls was rather high, many manufacturers began imitating the product.
Britain was ahead of France for what regarded the shawl trend: Empress Josephine started wearing the shawl only after the Napoleonic Wars brought French women into contact with this garment. In the 19th century the shawl was mainly employed by ladies to provide contrasts in silhouettes: the dresses were straight and the shawls added a sort of draped element to a woman's attire.
The early shawls were imitations of the Kashmir shawls, especially for what regarded size and proportions, and also had deep patterned borders at the narrow ends while the centres were almost always white. It was only in later years that manufacturers introduced colourful centres.
The shape of the shawl was altered in the 1820s: as the straight dress was abandoned in favour of wider shoulders, narrow waists and flaring skirts, the shawl was folded to a triangle and draped around the shoulders to highlight the tapered waist.
Around the same time there was a change also in the weaving processes: the original Kashmir shawls were produced using the time consuming twill-tapestry weaving. British manufacturers wove the shawls on a silk warp, but soon spinning improved allowing to produce an all-woollen shawl in one piece.
In this way the pattern extended towards the central area becoming more intricate and complicated and turning into a naturalistic floral motif. In some cases the entire surface of the shawl was covered, though plain centres were considered more apt for summer wear since they were lighter in weight.
An important part of the 19th century brides' trousseau, the white centre plaids were usually worn by women attending Churching or Kirking ceremonies.
Another change regarding the shawl silhouette was introduced in the 1840s since more women started wearing the rectangular plaids favoured by Queen Victoria instead of the square shawls. Besides, the large plaids - worn square about the shoulders - also allowed to cover the then fashionable crinolines. Reversible shawls arrived in 1865, though they weren't very successful because of their weight.
Paisley shawls were also popular among the working classes, and women who couldn't afford them opted for the Scotch Plaid until manufacturers started producing a printed version of the shawl on cheap fabric (a printed paisley shawl on expensive silk gauze already existed and was mainly meant to be worn at balls and during the summer).
The printed shawls were one of the reasons why the trend somehow started dying, the other reason is to be attributed to the arrival of the bustle: when ladies turned to mantles, capes and jackets for outdoor wear, the shawl went out of fashion by the 1880s also in small villages.
The starting point to make a shawl was to get a sketch on paper taking inspiration from the original Kashmir scarves. The design on squared point-paper would then be applied to the loom. Original shawls were made using pashmina, but Paisley manufacturers had to settle on Australian worsted yarn that had to be dyed (Paisley also boasted a strong dyeing industry). Natural dyes prevailed at the beginning (prussiate, saffron, malichite, chrome, lime, logwood and indigo), while, from 1856, manufacturers turned to chemical aniline dyes.
Looms were set up by men who went from loomshop to loomshop. Drawlooms - that is handlooms with an overhead harness - were replaced in the 1820s by the Jacquard. Weavers had to be highly skilled and accurate in their work. Once a shawl was woven it was inspected by the manufacturer and the workers then went through the finishing stages: they would remove all the loose threads, form the fringes (a job usually for women), wash the shawls, stretch them over a drying frame and finally steampress them.
The weaving industry was probably introduced in Paisley around the 18th century, when it mainly produced rough linen and woollen cloths, passing later on onto muslins and silks. Many weavers were left unemployed when in the following century it became difficult to find raw silk, but things got better when the shawls suddenly became popular and an Edinburgh manufacturer couldn't meet anymore the demand.
Weavers were self-employed since the looms belonged to the individual weaver who would work following the instructions of the manufacturer who provided the design and the yarns. Part of a a very profitable industry, the Paisley weavers were among the best paid workers in Britain in those times, yet, little by little, their fate changed. Upon the introduction of the Jacquard system, manufacturers bought looms (they were too expensive for the individual weaver to buy) and installed them in the factories, marking the slow end of a cottage industry.
The weavers' work also depended on fashion: if shawls were only worn for one season, manufacturers wouldn't be able to sell their stocks and therefore pay the workers. This meant that Paisley went through periods of crisis and depression, especially between 1841 and 1843 when almost 15,000 members of the weaving community received relief.
Disputes with manufacturers were frequent and sorted out by a central committee set to negotiate on labour matters with the manufacturers. If disputes weren't solved, weavers would parade an eggify of the manufacturer through the streets before burning it.
One of issues of dispute was the Sma' Shot, a binding that held the coloured wefts in place. Since the thread was not seen on the surface, the manufacturers refused to pay for the yarn used. After many disputes the weavers won their fight and established the first Saturday of July as Sma' Shot Day, a celebratory holiday to commemorate their triumph over the manufacturers.
As the years passed the number of manufacturers reduced: the last Paisley shawls were woven in 1903 and the very last loomshop closed down in the early 1940s. One of the main reason for the end of the Paisley industry was the change in fashion trends, followed also by the fact that it became soon impossible to weave the more fashionable and complicated shawl patterns on traditional 19th century looms.
Glasgow weaving college held an exhibition of Paisley shawls in 1902, and a bigger one was organised at the Paisley Museum in 1905. The collection of the local museum grew up year after year also thanks to the donations that included shawls, costumes, but also looms (the most important donations are two full-sized Jacquard looms from the last handloom weaving shop that closed down in Paisley in 1943).
The museum currently preserves the most comprehensive collection of Paisley patterned shawls in the world: it starts with Kashmir shawls and features designs from the 1800s to the 1860s, including zebra (striped) and kirking shawls (try to spot them in the following video I recently did at the museum). The most beautiful ones are the highly decorative shawls such as a French shawl from 1870 (around 01:50 in the video) characterised by a spectacular asymmetric motif probably designed by Antony Berrus (1815-1883).
Though the looms are the key pieces of the shawl gallery at Paisley Museum, the collection also features a few dresses from 1813-15 in lovely wool-silk fabrics matched with Paisley shawls.
The last design included in the gallery is actually an evening coat by Ossie Clark (1975) in a Paisley pattern (03:47 in the video). One of the most intriguing designs in the collection features the Paisley motif superimposed on a cell-like structure (1860; sixth image in this post) almost reminiscent of Dutch wax textiles, and could lead to wonderful reinterpretations that mixing maybe science-inspired prints and Paisley motifs.
Paisely patterns are currently going through a revival: they appeared (in a floral mix with elements borrowed from Hieronymus Bosch's works) in the dresses and short coats included in Carven's Autumn/Winter 2012-13 collection, but also in Givenchy's Resort 2013 Collection.
The latter moved from the designer's interpretation of a gypsy and travelling nomadic woman's wardrobe (a concept Riccardo Tisci then expanded in the elaborate shawl-like beaded and fringed evening gowns in Givenchy's Autumn/Winter 2012-13 Haute Couture collection - View this photo) and included designs in silk red and blue paisley prints mixed with graphic black and white geometric figures reminiscent of the formal images of the Bauhaus.
This combination was applied to dresses, sarouel trousers and button-down shirts, tops and coats characterised by long sleeves slit to the shoulders that gave the garments a sort of cape-like look (funny how, as stated earlier on in this post, the cape trend "killed" the shawl while this seems to be a revenge of the shawl over the cape...), but also to accessories such as large carrier bags.
Collections by famous fashion houses usually feed ideas into the high street store collections, so expect to see the Paisley pattern/print coming back also in its cheaper version.
Before buying into the trend, make an effort to visit the Paisely Museum shawls collection if you can: you may be able to learn more about the origins of what you will be wearing this Autumn.
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