The History and Symbolism of Paisley Pattern Trends
Once a sought-after commodity for the elite, paisley has seen its rise and fall for centuries. And, now it’s back!
Paisley patterns can be lush with dense swirls and intricate lines or comprised of sparse shapes set on a placid background. Elaborate or understated, paisley is recognizable for the unique figure at its core. People around the world compare it to a tear drop, a flower, a pinecone, a tadpole, a seed, half of the yin yang symbol.
There are contrasting theories about the beginnings of paisley, largely because it’s such an old pattern that it predates much documentation. In modern culture, paisley appears in both printed and woven goods. It decorates women’s shawls, men’s neckties, mehndi tattoos, and, of course, bandanas. Look closely and you’ll see little paisley shapes in those cotton squares.
One of the earliest examples of paisley is found in the decorative brick work on a 9th century mosque in Afghanistan (Noh Gunbad Mosque). Much of the building is in ruins, but the fluid paisley shapes are easily recognizable as the adaptable design we know today.
The Persian word for paisley is boteh. Traditionally, boteh-jegheh (roughly meaning paisley patterns) were woven into silk or wool cloths called Termeh. Marco Polo, in 1272, passed through some of the cities where Termeh was woven and wrote about “quantities of a certain silk tissue.” His writing is thought to be about paisley fabric.
Paisley cloth was woven in a number of cities in the same area, among them Kashmir. The English word cashmere, which paisley shawls were traditionally made of, takes its name from this city.
It’s easy to see the appeal of such a readily customized motif. Artists can elongate, round off, hide, multiply, or isolate paisley shapes. Soon after the pattern’s appearance, paisley designs were carved, woven, stamped, and drawn onto documents.
In the mid 15th century, we begin to see paintings of Persian royalty wearing paisley robes. Also around this time, paisley was introduced to weavers in India. By the 17th century, leaders in Persia wore one large paisley brooch centered on their headgear. This custom continued at least through the 18th century. Nader Shah Afshar, emperor of Iran (1688-1747), had a paisley pinencrusted with diamonds and emeralds. Fath-Ali Shah of Qajar (1797-1834) wore a number of different boteh-jegheh pins in painted portraits.
The Persian word shal denotes a class of fabric rather than a particular piece of clothing—this is where our word shawl comes from. Persian men traditionally wore shal textiles as a soft belt around the waist. Indian men wore shal as a draped shoulder mantle, more like what we now think of as a shawl. Women did not wear this expensive fabric at all.
The early paisley shal were woven specifically from the soft hairs of mountain goats. The inner layer of hair was called pashm (like our word pashmina). These Central Asian goats, after a cold winter, would shed their fine hairs, leaving them behind on the bushes they rubbed against.
Weavers scoured the mountainsides collecting these fibers. It was time-consuming work and, combined with the time to dye and hand-weave pashmina shawls, it could take more than a year to complete just one—which made them extremely expensive.
Europe’s Cravings for the Paisley Pattern
The famous East India Company was established in the 17th century, allowing imports to move from East to West—and back again—along the silk routes. Many exotic goods arrived in Europe, including (by the 18th century) paisley shawls. Britain had access to them first, and English women adored these astonishingly beautiful garments.
A feverish craze for paisley soon spread across Europe. Napoleon gifted a shawl to his wife Josephine, who’s rumored to have amassed anywhere from 60-150 shawls. This is a shocking number seeing as paisley shawls—taking so long to make, and sailing all the way from India—could each costthe price of a modest English house. But, the paisley shawls arriving in Europe came in countless color combinations and a wealthy woman couldn’t have too many.
Industrialization Changes the Face of Paisley Designs
Because the European elite began splurging on paisley, the desire for it grew amongst less wealthy citizens, as well. Seeing this, keen mill owners worked out how to weave paisley locally, on mechanized looms. In the 1790s, paisley mills opened in a number of European cities such as Lyons, Norwich, and Vienna.
The most noteworthy mill opened in 1808, in Paisley, Scotland. This is also where the name for this paisley pattern originates. The Scottish mill became the lead producer of paisley. At its peak, well over fifty shawl manufacturers were based there, working with varying layouts and designs.
Weaving paisley shawls on machinated looms cost a fraction of what the handwoven Indian shawls did, so the price in Europe dropped precipitously as local mills flooded the market with affordable paisley. By the late 1800s, even a maid could afford a paisley shawl. This was greatly damaging for many villages in the East, whose economies had been tied to weaving paisley for two hundred years. Technology utterly outpaced their handmade looms, and livelihoods vanished.
Soon after, Europe slowed its production of paisley for its own reasons. Once everyone could afford paisley shawls (including lowly servants), paisley lost its chic appeal. The cost of shawls dropped to only a few shillings. To add insult to injury, the bustle became popular, which ruined the line of beautiful shawls. Paisley shawls lingered in many women’s closets.
Over time, paisley proved that it had longevity. In a quiet way (much quieter than the first craze in Europe), paisley endured. Its beautiful shape made it graceful in countless sizes, colors, densities, and pairings with other patterns. It became a popular pattern for men’s ties. The Art Nouveau movement adopted it. Oscar Wilde was keen to wear it.
Other celebrities gave paisley a resurgence later on. In the 1960s, when Indian spirituality was of interest to the West, the Beatles went to India to study with a yogi. They were seen wearing paisley shirts many times over. Mick Jagger wore paisley, David Bowie wore it, Janis Joplin, and many others. Hippie culture embraced paisley’s slightly psychedelic, cosmic look. Paisley designs morphed in tone and style. It appeared in neon colors for the first time.