Recently, as I was going through our extensive archive collection and looking for design inspiration, one motif stood out amongst the old and the new and that was paisley. This inspired me to research its origin and write about it in this column.
Paisley is a teardrop-shaped motif of Persian (now Iranian) and Indian origin. It is sometimes known as the “Persian Pickle” or Boteh, which comes from the Hindi word for flower. The original design has been influenced by many cultures, and it came to the West as a result of trade in cashmere goods from Kashmir, down to India and then Europe.
In the late 17th century, travelers, explorers and military personnel as well as members of the East India Company acquired shawls from Kashmir and brought them back to Europe as gifts. They were considered a status symbol and worked well with the simple, linear neoclassical fashion of the day. When these cashmere shawls were first exported, the designs were very naturalistic depictions of flowers. Later, as the designs developed, they became more geometric and highly stylized.
As the popularity of these designs increased, Indian weavers could no longer keep pace with demand. By the 19th century, some of the production of paisley shawls shifted to Europe so manufacturers could cater more directly to the European market and capitalize on the changing fashion.
Although many towns throughout Europe produced the Kashmir shawl, the weavers in Paisley, Scotland reproduced it most economically and for the longest period of time. And so this centuries-old swirling design motif took on its modern name: paisley.
There are many stories about the origin of paisley; however, one thing is clear. It has gone a long way and it has influenced many designs around the globe. Paisley has become part of our design lexicon and is one of the most recognized patterns in the world. If you are a textile and design junkie like myself, and I suspect you are, I encourage you all to take the time and dig deeper into its history. After all, there is only so much I can put in my little column.