• The History of the Paisley Symbol and Paisley Pattern

    Posted by Guru NewYork

    Origins of the Paisley:

    Ancient Babylon in present day Iraq is claimed to be one place of origin of the paisley form. Another opinion, expressed by Sam Willis in the 2016 BBC TV series The Silk Road, is that the symbol originated from the city of Yazd in Iran. In Yazd originates the weaving of the traditional fabric called a termeh, a cloth made of silk and wool which often included the paisley (boteh) form. Another common theory is that it originated in Persia 200-650 AD during the rule of the Sassanians who created an empire who's armies kept the Romans at bay for centuries.

    This empire included what we know roughly as the Middle East, the Caucasus and central Asia. Their culture continues to influence Persian identity right up to the present day (pic 1 - a paisley ornament from Afghanistan C12th-14th). One of the nicknames for paisley shapes since the 18th century, especially by American quilt makers, was “Persian pickles”.

    The symbol can be best described as a similar shape to a curving teardrop or a kidney. The symbol was called boteh (the Persian word for shrub or cluster of leaves) which is visually a combination of a spray of floral elements and a cypress tree. Centuries later the shape was called Buta almond or bud - the national symbol of Azerbaijan to this day. It could also be an adaptation of the yin-yang symbol used in ancient Chinese medicine and philosophy.

    Many different cultures have used the paisley symbol and consider it to represent many objects including a cashew fruit, a mango or a sprouting date palm, an Indian symbol of fertility. The symbol’s shape varies dramatically in different countries from an Indian pinecone to a Russian cucumber. 

    Paisleys also have their place in Celtic tradition. Before the Roman empire’s influence prevailed in Britain, Celtic patterns were used on many highly-decorated metal objects. The Desborough Mirror (pic 2), discovered at an archaeological excavation in Northamptonshire in 1908, was made in the Iron Age period in Britain around 50BC to AD50. I photographed the mirror at a visit to the British Museum, London in April 2015. The bronze mirror’s complex swirling engraved symbols, very similar to paisley forms, can also be seen in their online collection listing.

    The paisley pattern evolved mainly in The Kingdom of Kashmir. During Mughal Emperor Akbar's reign (1556–1605), shawl-weaving production increased dramatically. It’s weavers absorbing influences coming across the borders from nearby China, Middle East and India. Woven paisley shawls were mainly worn by men for ceremonies. These early shawls did not display the paisley shape as we know it today but a curving flower with leaves and a stem, the roots of which have striking similarities to Chinese calligraphy. The way in which symbols from different cultures appear in the development of the paisley pattern show how weavers translated artistic influences from imported ceramics, documents, fabrics into their own designs.


    The East India Company imported paisley shawls (adapted from the Persian word shal) from Kashmir and Persia to Europe in large quantities from around 1800. The designs were specifically tailored to cater for each regions particular tastes. In Europe the shawls were worn mainly by women not men. The designs might depict exotic scenes of people on elephants riding past palm trees. For the Middle Eastern customers, the curved geometric paisley shape as we know it today was widely used. This was partly due to the Islamic preference not to depict recognisable natural objects.

    European customers gradually preferred more complicated patterns on their shawls. Therefore in Kashmir, to speed up the manufacturing process, the ‘patchwork shawl' was invented. Woven pieces of fabric from several looms were joined together to make one shawl.


    The French Connection:

    Joseph Marie Jacquard introduced the punch card system to looms in Lyon in 1804, resulting in the first programmable loom. This and other advances in technology during the C19th slowly reduced the high levels of child labour in the textile industries because machinery became larger and more complicated so was unsuitable for children to operate. Prior to the jacquard loom, a child would sit on top of each loom raising and lowering the heddles. His invention made weaving 25 times faster with obviously dramatic increases in paisley shawl output.

    In 1805, Napoleon and Empress Josephine, his first wife, visited Lyon and viewed Jacquard’s new loom and granted the patent resulting in Jacquard receiving a royalty for each loom bought. 

    Joséphine, the first wife of Napoleon I, reputedly owned hundreds of cashmere shawls. These Indian and Pakistani shawls were brought back from Napoleon's campaigns in countries such as Egypt at the beginning of the c.19th. There are many portraits of Josephine wearing shawls similar in style and colour to pic.6 which were the height of fashion and luxury. The creamy ecru colour is the natural colour of the goat's fleece. Pic 7 is an example of a beautifully designed and coloured shawl woven in Lyon between 1850-1870.


    British shawl production:

    British production of woven shawls began in 1790 in Norwich, England but to a greater extent in 1805 in the small town of Paisley, Scotland. Roughly equal quantities of imported Kashmiri and home-produced British shawls were bought in Britain in the mid C19th. The former retained their popularity despite their much higher prices. The main reason being that cashmere is actually hair from a goat and these fine hairs are soft and provide excellent insulation. Cashmere was therefore preferred to sheep's wool which was regarded as much less luxurious.  Also the superior Kashmiri looms produced fully reversible fabric with many more colours. Initially the British shawls were only 2-colour, usually indigo and madder. At it’s peak from c.1850 -1860 the town of Paisley employed 6,000 weavers. 


    The name "Paisley":

    Due to the huge scale of shawl production in Paisley, Scotland, the pattern was given the name 'paisley'. The name 'paisley' is not an international name for the pattern, it is called palme in France, bota in Netherlands, bootar in India and peizuli in Japan. 

    The Scottish town was named Paisley as far back as the 7th century. The first church was built on the abbey site in 7th century. An ancient Celtic language was spoken in Britain at this time. ‘Paisley’ derives from the word Passeleg which means 'basilica' indicating a major church. The church was given abbey status in 1245. Parts of the current abbey date back to 1163. William Wallace, the Scottish knight and national hero of Scottish independence was educated in the abbey. The expansion of the textile industry in the town dates back to the 17th century and is evident with street names which include the words thread, silk, shuttle and cotton. Paisley is part of Renfrewshire, 1 of 32 Scottish councils; it uses the paisley symbol as it's official logo.



    In Britain in the C19th the paisley shawl was the ‘must-have’ accessory of its day, a status symbol worn for important occasions and recorded in numerous portrait paintings. Until photography had become more available in the late 19th century, paintings recorded fashion trends. These paintings are now a valuable resource for mapping stages in the development of paisley patterns and variations in shawl shapes and sizes. Ford Maddox Brown's painting (pic.9) from 1860 shows that even a poor girl on the street selling flowers is wearing the fashion of the day, possibly a gift from a sympathetic passer-by on a cold day. William Holman Hunt's painting The Awakening Conscience (1853 - The Tate Britain, London) shows the woman wearing a red paisley shawl draped around her middle and tied at the front, probably brought back by the man from an overseas trip.

    Paisley patterns, intricate dynamic interlocking shapes in exciting colour combinations appealed to a wide market. Wool and silk blended yarns were used in Britain, as Tibetan goat hair down was not readily available. A rather unsuccessful attempt was made to rear cashmere goats in Essex, England in 1818. A small herd bred from two imported goats from Kazakhstan only produced very small amounts of the underfleece as the British weather wasn't cold enough. The rearing was then abandoned.


    Design Copyright:

    Paisley designs in Britain were one of the first examples of copyright protection in the creative fields. Copyrights for paisley designs date back to the 1840’s.


    Paisley Decline and Diversification:

    Developments in printing technology in Europe in C19th enabled factories to mass-produce printed paisley fabrics and cater for the worldwide demand. This brought about the decline in the demand for woven shawls and by 1860 many of the weavers had emigrated to Australia and Canada due to poverty.By the late C19th paisley designs had acquired wider uses appearing in prints and embroideries but this did not stop the paisley shawl’s decline in popularity in conjunction with a famine in Kashmir in the 1880’s. The dolman (pic.10) is a fine example of C19th recycling; the large woven shawls, no longer in fashion by 1880, were adapted as jackets, dolmans and capes. The weavers, especially in Paisley, had to listen to merchants who would advise them on possible new markets. An example of this was supplying paisley ponchos for the South America market.

    The paisley pattern designs used for the shawls continued to be used as examples of technical visual perfection. Detailed hand-drawn colour plans on paper from 1840's and 1850's were used as visual aids to assist the teaching of design students on a variety of courses at Glasgow School of Art from 1920's to late 1940's.

    A painting from 1918 of artist Vanessa Bell in The National Portrait Gallery by Duncan Grant (1885 – 1978) shows her wearing a red paisley pattern dress. This proves that the paisley form continued to be worn as an attractive motif into the 20th century.

    Images of paisley shawls continued to be used in popular culture. Pic 12 shows a book cover from 1939.


    The Big Comeback:

    Not until the late 1960’s did paisleys return to their former glory in the fashion world. The new attraction to exotic musical and artistic influences catapulted them back into the boutiques, magazines and adorned the hippest pop icons of the day, most noticeably The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Kinks, The Who and The Small Faces. Carnaby Street was the place to shop for the latest paisley fashions. John Stephen, a talented gay Glaswegian, known as The King of Carnaby Street, was the leading designer/tailor for menswear in London in the 60’s. He was one of the main designers contributing to The Peacock Revolution, a flamboyant, vivid, menswear fashion trend that enabled men to wear bold patterns including flashy spirited paisley prints. He dressed the leading rock stars of the day in his 15 different boutiques on Carnaby Street with shop names like Domino Male and Male West One. The Beatles in 1968 began to regularly visit India and embrace its philosophy, music and of course paisley fabrics. The paisley design was commonly associated with rebellion; it was a statement of non-conformity, a welcome alternative to the preceding sober mod fashion trends. It was the perfect print for the androgynous hedonistic counterculture of the hippies. The hippie look is strongly linked to the psychedelic "Summer of Love" when 100,000 people came together in Haight-Ashbury, a district of San Francisco, California to share their common beliefs such as rejecting consumerist values and encouraging pacifism. Paisley patterns and other fabrics from around the world helped encourage a spirit of multiculturalism and, for the wearer, were visual statements of this principle.

    Since the 1960’s the paisley has bounced back onto the catwalks and into the high streets every few years. At the other end of the spectrum it became a sign of affiliation in gang culture. The bandana, named after the Hindi term “to tie”, was originally a makeshift dust-mask for cowboys and a way of disguising their faces until it was adopted by the gangs of Los Angeles in the late 60’s and then used by rock stars and their fans ever since.

    The paisley pattern has had many other musical connections. In 1982 the British new wave band Television Personalities released the album 'They Could Have Been Bigger Than The Beatles' which includes the song 'The Boy In The Paisley Shirt' about a groovy fella who should be let out of his groovy cellar. It amusingly mocks late 60's fashions and namechecks Kathy McGowan and Mary Quant. In 1997 they released the live album 'Paisley Shirts & Mini Skirts'. Also in 1982, 5,000 miles away on America's west coast, a new psychedelic genre was developing called the Paisley Underground. This neo-psychedelic movement included the bands: The Bangles, The Dream Syndicate, Green on Red, The Long Ryders and The Three O'Clock to name a few. This movement inspired pop icon Prince to convey a strong psychedelic sound on his 1985 album 'Around the World in a Day'. The first single on the album 'Paisley Park' came in an organic interlocking paisley printed record sleeve with paisley typeface. He also named his record label and recording studios, Paisley Park Records and Paisley Park Studios giving his royal seal of approval to the paisley pattern. Incidentally, in 1984 he wrote 'Manic Monday' for the Bangles, and signed the Three O'Clock to Paisley Park Records. With song titles such as 'Joy in Repetition', Prince easily appeals to textile designers generally. In the 1991 hit record "Get Off" by Prince, he sings the lyric "Here we are in my paisley crib".

    After his untimely death on 21st April 2016, Alona Elkayam in The Huffington Post in her article titled Paisley: A Pattern Made For A Prince, she said in tribute "Prince, like the paisley, your music and your name will transcend generations and cultures. Thank you"


    Florence Welch, singer of the band Florence and the Machine said in 2011 "I must get a couple of shirts made from the paisley design - I love paisley". Stella McCartney and Kenzo must have heard her plea. Florence became a paisley style icon in 2012 wearing gorgeous paisley suits and dresses by these two premier designers. Her collection for Liberty Art Fabrics called 'Grace' was a reinterpretation of vintage paisleys from the Liberty-print archives.

    In October 2014 i saw a great new rock band Purson live in concert at Chinnerys Southend. A feast of classic sounds, great songs and prints. The band members often wear paisley prints but here In pic 16, taken on the night, you can see Samuel Shove's keyboard draped in a dynamic paisley fabric.


    2010's and The Future:

    The universal popularity of the paisley print means new designs receive prime positioning in magazines, websites and shop windows. One garish design which received mass media coverage around the world appeared at the 2010 Winter Olympics. The Azerbaijan team sported modern graphic colourful paisley trousers, which gave the small team (only 2 competitors) great exposure at the opening ceremony.

    The tradition of the paisley shawl in British culture is referenced in works by contemporary artists such as the Turner Prize-winning potter Grayson Perry as can be seen in pic 13.

    In 2009 the highly respected clothing label Pretty Green was launched with Liam Gallagher at it's helm as founder and designer. It was named 'Menswear Brand of the Year' at the Drapers Fashion Awards in 2010. Exclusive paisley prints are constantly present in the collections as shirts, polos or shoes with signature paisley inner liners.

    The Italian fashion house Etro (Milan) continue to produce undoubtedly the most beautiful paisley fashion prints in the world every season. Girolamo Etro created the Etro brand in 1968 in Milan. He was a famous collector of art, from ancient Roman sculptures to 20th century painters such as Giorgio de Chirico. He amassed a collection of 150 Kashmir paisley shawls dating from 1810 to 1880. He introduced the paisley pattern into the Etro fabric collections in the early 1980s. They were so successful that the label is now the brand most closely associated with the paisley pattern. 

    Closer to home, Liberty of London continuously reinvent the paisley print as can be seen from the beautiful silk scarf in pic15. In recent years, catwalk collections from many major designers including Balenciaga, Jill Sander, Jonathan Saunders and Stella McCartney have all featured exciting new takes on the paisley. The Massimo Dutti spring/summer 2014 collection featured an array of paisleys in blue shades including engineered scarf print garments. Actress Kate Hudson was featured on the front page of InStyle magazine in July 2014 wearing a stylish red and pale blue paisley bikini. Lauren Laverne’s feature in The Observer in May 2014 entitled “Eye-popping Paisley” highlighted the importance of the paisley print "essential to achieve the boho look or festival chic, the paisley would be the dominant statement print through summer and autumn but mostly looking ahead to the autumn and winter 2014 collections".

    In February 2015 Rebecca Gonzales’ double-page feature in The Independent newspaper, stresses the importance of Persian paisleys in the latest Seventies revival. Entitled “Get Your Groove On”, the article says the seventies are back and provide perennial inspiration for summer collections. 2015 saw the return of the paisley poncho for men and women. Paisley nightwear was a bestseller with the Mirror newspaper announcing "M&S (Marks and Spencer) rapidly sold out of pure cotton paisley patterned pajamas".

    In 2016 several leading fashion houses have included paisley patterns in their spring summer collections. These include Gucci, isabel Marant and Saint Laurent.

    To accompany our love of paisley fashion, we can surround ourselves in paisley furnishing fabrics, wallpapers, screensavers and iphone cases. They all prove that this organic symbol whether flower, tree or sprouting seed is so adaptable it will continue to grow in any direction a designer desires for decades to come. Whilst I'm on the subject of growing, there is even a hosta plant called "Lakeside Paisley Print" bred by Mary Chastain in the 1990s. She is a horticulturist who lives near the shore of Lake Chickamauga in eastern Tennessee. Her hosta has leaves that resemble paisley forms with cream feather markings in the centre of paisley shaped wavy edged leaves.


    Preservation for Future Generations:

    In 2015 a project began at the Paisley Museum, Scotland, to digitally record it's entire collection of 1200 paisley shawls, most of which are approximately 200 years old. It is one of the largest paisley shawl collections in the world and is officially listed as a Recognised Collection of National Significance to Scotland. Each shawl will be carefully photographed and scanned. The museum are also making digital copies of all of it's pattern books, so that there will be a detailed reference facility of thousands of historic paisley patterns. This is one of many projects at the museum where a high priority is conservation of many aspects of its fascinating paisley heritage. The project is due to be completed in June 2016.


    Patrick Moriarty


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