Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Apple #330: Paisley

I couldn't settle on a topic for today's Apple, so I thought I'd listen to some music, do some other stuff, and something might come to me. I had my iTunes on random, and when Simon & Garfunkle's "America" came on, I thought, "Paisley!"

No idea where that connection comes from. It exists somewhere in my brain, obviously, but I can't explain it.

It turns out, the history of paisley is actually kind of fascinating.

Paisley fabric, from somewhere on Maggie Delaney's site.

  • Paisley patterns as we know them today originated in Kashmir and Persia (today, Iran).

Kashmir doesn't exist as a discrete country today. It's an area that includes parts of India, Pakistan, and China. Like much of the Middle East, it's an area where nobody can agree on what land belongs to which country and what should be sovereign to whom.
(Map from Pro-Pakistan)

  • Paisley patterns first appeared on shawls (the word shawl comes from the Persian word shal, which refers to a type of woven fabric).
  • People in Kashmir had been making woven shawls since at least the 11th century, but it wasn't until the 18th century when they were somehow inspired by English books about various plants and herbs that they began to put these particular patterns on the shawls.
  • The first patterns were kind of like drawings in that they were representations of a single plant.
  • The shape of this plant changed and changed again over the years until it became the curving, swirly cone we're so familiar with today.

Diagram showing the evolution of the original flowering plant into the familiar paisley shape.
(Image from Victoriana.com)

  • People aren't sure why the plant evolved into this exact shape, but the Paisley Museum thinks that it may come from the Babylonian date palm.
      • Way back in ancient Babylon (what Persia used to be), people used to render the growing shoot of a date palm in a teardrop shape. They think that this teardrop shape of the date palm merged with this other plant design that we know today as paisley.
      • The date palm was source of all kinds of essential things -- food, shelter, wood, clothing, etc. When they put the date palm teardrop on clothing and other stuff, it was more like a symbol, representing the Tree of Life and fertility.
  • So you could say that the paisley shape celebrates life, growth, and fertility.

Wool and silk woven paisley shawl from 1860.
(Photo from Victoriana.com)

  • People from Kashmir started selling their shawls to people in Great Britain, and they were a huge hit. This was around the early 1800s to about the 1870s -- right smack in the middle of Victorian England.
  • I wonder if all those Victorian women knew that when they wore their paisley shawls everywhere, they were wearing a bunch of fertility symbols?

A very large paisley shawl, made to cover the entire crinoline of a woman's dress, about 1865.
(Image from Victoriana.com)

  • Paisley shawls made in Kahsmir and imported into England were really expensive. So various cloth manufacturers in England and Scotland and France started making their own paisley shawls.
        • You can tell the difference between Kashmir shawls and Europeans shawls by the material with which they're woven. British shawls are made from silk and wool. Kashmir shawls were made from goat's fleece.
        • The softest and finest of the Kashmir shawls were woven from the fleece on the underbelly of wild central Asian goats.
        • And, by the way, the word cashmere, which refers to very soft goat's wool, comes from the word Kashmir.

Cashmere goats, on the steppes in Mongolia.
(Photo from e-Mongol)

The yarn that's spun from their wool
(Photo from Beijing Richman International)

And a shawl that's made from cashmere wool yarn.
(Shawl from Elizabetta, made in Italy, sells for $98. She's got lots of other really beautiful shawls and stoles)

  • One of the places in the UK that made a ton of these shawls was Paisley, Scotland. It didn't take long before the name of the town also became the name the English-speakers used for the patterned fabric.
        • The word paisley, by the way, comes from the Gaelic word baslec, which comes from the Latin basilica. So paisley is actually another word for church.
        • Leave it to the Victorians to give something that stands for fertility and life a name that means "church."
  • Paisley shawls fell out of fashion in the 1870s because the Franco-Prussian war made it harder to export the shawls from Kashmir. And the ones produced in the UK had become so inexpensive -- only a few shillings -- it was no longer a mark of status to wear one, and therefore they became unfashionable.
  • Even so, the paisley design has stuck around and sort of popped its head above water now and again.
        • In the late 1960s, it emerged with all the psychedelic stuff.

Vintage dress from the 1960s features a can't-miss paisley print
(Photo from Kaboodle)

        • It had another resurgence in the 80s when it showed up on lots of socks & ties & skirts. Just watch an episode or two of Designing Women, and I bet you'll see some.
        • These days, paisley is a big hit on all those Vera Bradley bags which are suddenly and inexplicably popular with all the preppy girls.

One of Vera Bradley's fabric patterns for 2008, Raspberry Fizz, features paisley in its design.
(Swatch from Sandpiper Clothiers' page showing a whole bunch of Vera Bradley Swatches)

  • The big difference today, though, is that most paisley fabric is printed. It's really hard to weave a paisley pattern -- and expensive. So most cashmere is all one color of yarn, and most paisley is printed on silk or another type of fabric. If you can find something that's paisley and cashmere today, I think you've probably got yourself a rare item.

This photo shows how a paisley design is plotted on the warp and weft of a woven fabric, and gives you an idea of the complexity involved in making one of these things. This design was used in a shawl made in about 1850.
(Photo sourced from designer John Coulthart's blog feuilleton. Photo is originally from Paisley Patterns: A Design Source Book)

Meg Andrews, Beyond the Fringe: Shawls of Paisley Design, Victoriana.com
Thistle & Broom, Paisley
Online Etymology Dictionary, paisley
Wikipedia, Paisley (design)


  1. I have a Great Dane named Paisley!

    I got the name from Paisley, Scotland b/c my great grandma was born there :)

  2. *I also have a Great Dane named Wallace ... after William Wallace b/c I'm related to him! haha

  3. I love paisley. And, Brad Paisley is a Freemason, just like George Washington was.

  4. Hi there!
    I was looking for information on paisley patterns (in Portugal we call it Kashmir patterns) and your post helped a lot. I'll make sure to quote you in mine - even if you won't understand a word of it it ;)

  5. mad, I'm glad you found something useful here, and that is very cool that something from the Daily Apple will appear in Portuguese! Thanks for letting me know.

    --the Apple Lady

  6. Good stuff!!! Was really helpful in understading paisely motifs ..!!!

  7. The paisley pattern reminds of male sperm, left hand music sign, question mark en recently I saw clothing with a paisley pattern with the head of a snake. Lookin at it again it looks like most "fat" men. One can actually glue a large paisley from the tummy to the head on them. These are the big bellied ones, with moustache, fullbeard and thin legs, etc. From time to time u also see women with their round fat bodies on top of 2 very thin legs. No wonder they see it as fertility. The snake like paisley pattern reminds of the male sexual organs.

  8. I found your article very informative. However the local name for Paisely in India is Kaiery which means a raw mango and if you look at the shape it is in the form of a Paisely.


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