One of my minor “hobbies” is paisley spotting. The distinctive design has never really gone away, but it does have its moments and I think one of them is right now.
I say this because as I walked along Cardiff’s main shopping street yesterday I spotted five examples of paisley-patterned clothing – one of them a dress on sale in a boutique window. And there was one more on the bus, another in a random magazine advert last weekend and another in a TV drama I was catching up with last night.
I’ve been meaning to blog about paisley print for years, but the moment has so often passed. Now a news story has set me off again.
The fabric pattern has been around for centuries, but was particularly popular in Victorian times, when it picked up its “paisley” name in Scotland.
That’s the new story – a patch of paisley pattern from a shawl at the Paisley Museum, kept for research purposes, has been blasted into space and will spend six weeks on the International Space Station. When it returns it will be framed and displayed as part of the town’s bid to be the UK City of Culture 2021.
But I’d better get back to basics. What is paisley? You can spot it by looking for this distinctive motif.
The motif is often called a buta or boteh, and comes originally from Persia (modern Iran). The design hit Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, after Kashmiri shawls were imported from India and imitated locally.
That’s where the paisley name came from, at least for us in the UK. Paisley, not far from Glasgow, in the West of Scotland, was one of those places trying to keep up with demand for Kashmir-style shawls and made its own copies locally. At first these were woven but later printed cheaply on cotton.
But what does the shape represent?
Is it a tear drop?
Is it an almond?
Is it a fig?
Is it a mango?
Is it a whale?
Among American quilt-makers the design is sometimes called Persian pickles, while apparently it was called “Welsh pears” here in Wales, although I didn’t know that until I read Wikipedia.
Although considered Persian, the ornament seems to have even closer associations with Azerbaijan. It is a national symbol to such an extent that in 2010 the Azerbaijan team at the Winter Olympics wore the design on their trousers, and it was the emblem of the 2012 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, in Azerbaijan.
I also noticed it much in evidence at the 2012 Eurovision song contest held in Baku, Azerbaijan. Just to demonstrate how this subject has been long on my mind, here is a picture I took at the time from my TV screen…
That special shape present in all true paisley patterns is an enigmatic one, despite my attempts above to deconstruct it. Some think it is a stylised combination of flower and cypress tree, a symbol of life and eternity in the Zoroastrian religion. Others say it is a bent cedar, the tree Zarathustra planted in paradise, a symbol of strength and resistance but modesty.
Anyway, it’s used a lot in central Asian countries. To the south in India, it is associated with Hinduism. Here and in Pakistan the design is usually said to represent a mango and local names for it reflect this. In China it’s known as the “ham hock” pattern.
The modern French words for paisley are boteh, cachemire and palme – the palm tree, along with the pine and cypress tree, is thought to have influenced the shape of the motif as we know it today.
In the early 17th century the East India Company made paisley and other Indian patterns popular in Europe, but was unable keep up with the demand, so local manufacturers saw an opening.
In the 19th century European production grew. Soldiers returning from “the colonies” brought home cashmere wool shawls from India, and the East India Company imported more. The design was copied from the costly silk and wool Kashmir shawls and adapted first for use on hand looms and, after 1820, on powered Jacquard looms, which used punched cards to create complex patterns.
From around 1800 to 1850, the weavers of Paisley in Scotland were foremost producers of these shawls. They found a way of working in five colours when most weavers were producing paisley using only two. This is how the design became known as the paisley pattern. By 1860, Paisley could produce shawls with 15 colours, although this was still only a quarter of the colours in the shawls still being imported from Kashmir.
Printed, rather than woven textiles were made in France as early as 1640 and England and Holland followed a few decades later. Printed paisley was banned in France by royal decree for decades, to save the weavers’ trade.
By the 19th century Paisley in Scotland was producing lots of printed cotton and wool, so much cheaper than fabrics with the pattern in the weave. Among other things, printed paisley was used to make cotton squares a bit like bandannas – and of course the pattern is still popular on head scarves today.
When I was a child I had several dresses home-made in paisley print. Some of this fabric made its way into a patchwork I made in the 1970s…
I do wonder if the more elaborate paisley prints were influenced at all by Jacobean embroidery?
Are the extra motifs a bit like this?
Paisley print came back to the fore in the psychedelic 1960s and 1970s. In 1968 Fender even made a pink paisley version of their famous Telecaster guitar.
Some paisley is still psychedelic…
So obsessed am I with paisley that I told myself I bet you can find a picture of Princess Kate (Duchess of Cambridge) wearing paisley. And sure enough…
I often think a paisley pattern reminds me of fractals. But then when I look it’s not a bit like fractals, which are mathematical and intrinsically regular. But look at this and see what you think…
And just to show I’m not the only person who sees a similarity…
According to Wikipedia, a fractal is “a natural phenomenon or a mathematical set that exhibits a repeating pattern that displays at every scale”. I kind of understand but couldn’t even begin to explain…
So there we are, I’ve gone on a bit as usual!
For more about textiles see my post about gingham here…