Paisley Shawl

Vesta Ludden Nellis's Paisley Shawl
Vesta Ludden Nellis's Paisley Shawl.

The above image is a woolen textile, about 60 inches square, with a fringe on the top and bottom. The threads are dyed in subtle reds and blues, and it is woven in a swirling pattern of flowing tear drop shapes known worldwide as paisley. The textile was left to my husband Ed Nellis by his mother, Vesta Therese Ludden Nellis (1911–2002), who told us she had inherited it from her husband's great-grandmother, Sarah Sabina Crew (1856-1915). Other than that, we knew nothing.

According to art historian Joan Hart, a textile expert and independent scholar who examined photos of it, the textile is a woolen shawl created in Scotland or France in the 1860s. That's straightforward enough, but essential nosiness sent me down a research trail, where I discovered that the shawl's history involves the great Mughal empire, British and French imperialism in India, the Industrial Revolution in England, mid-19th-century European class and fashion, and nascent computer technology.

What is a Paisley Shawl?

The paisley shawl, also known as the Persian cone or buta, boteh or flower shawl (all these terms refer to the paisley decoration), was developed in the Kashmiri region of India during the Mughal empire (15th–mid-19th centuries CE). Shawls as decorative clothing first appeared in Indian garb before the 15th century, and the intricately patterned and vividly colored textiles appeared by the 1600s. Originally, the shawls were woven in small pieces (1"–12" in width) from the finest Tibetan goat's wool (cashmere), and then assembled into a broad fabric. Each took a year and a half to complete, and so they were elite goods worn primarily by the most influential men in the region, including members of the Mughal court.
Mid-19th century kashmiri shawl, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image credit: Look and Learn, public domain
Mid-19th century kashmiri shawl, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image credit: Look and Learn, public domain

Origins of the Paisley Design

According to several sources, the paisley patterns of the Mughal Empire shawls originated when the royal court obtained illustrated botanical texts from Europe, that contained detailed illustrations of plants. Similarities between these illustrations and decorations on early Mughal weavings strongly suggest intercultural borrowing. For example, the Textile Museum at George Washington University in Washington, DC, holds a 17th-century Kashmiri shawl with a line of sensuously swaying lilac bushes. The connection between early shawl decoration and botanical illustrations may explain why abstract teardrop designs in India were called boteh (or flower): the form was originally based on flowers.

Over time, the design gradually became more complex, first with multiple floral motifs and flowers in vases and then more abstract forms, resolving into the familiar flowing teardrop shape by the seventeenth century.

Popularity in Europe

The shawls first came to the attention of Europeans when military personnel from Napoleon's army were fighting in Egypt from 1798-1799 and plundered decorated shawls from defeated Mameluke slave-soldiers. Napoleon's army brought buta shawls back to France, where the shawls became staples of bourgeois women's wardrobes and soon a hot commodity throughout Europe. The military forces of the British East India Company were sent to India in the late 18th century, and they also obtained shawls to send home.

In Europe, the imported shawls were very expensive—in 1818, Kashmiri shawls cost up to 100 guineas, the equivalent of over £10,500 today, or US $13,000 for a single shawl. The demand for cheaper, British-made shawls was ignited among middle-class women, who admired the shawls draping over large crinoline skirts of wealthy women.
Stylish French woman wearing a Kashmiri shawl with an elaborate paisley pattern in red, blue, green, and white with a yellow fringe at the bottom. Paris France fashion illustration, 1840s. Image credit: Look and Learn, public domain (CC 1.0)
Stylish French woman wearing a Kashmiri shawl with an elaborate paisley pattern in red, blue, green, and white with a yellow fringe at the bottom. Paris France fashion illustration, 1840s. Image credit: Look and Learn, public domain (CC 1.0).

By the 1780s, weavers in Edinburgh in Scotland, Norwich in England, and Lyon in France all developed techniques enabling cheaper imitations of Kashmiri shawls using different manufacturing methods. In contrast to Kashmir examples which were created by conjoining small pieces into a patterned whole, European shawls were woven as a whole textile on a drawloom. The colors of the European shawls were subdued to appeal to European tastes, and sheep's wool was used instead of the far more expensive cashmere goat's wool. Several attempts by European entrepreneurs to import cashmere goats failed: the cold and wet climate didn't suit them. The shawls took months to complete, and despite the adjustments in manufacturing techniques, prices remained stubbornly out of reach for the middle class. Enter Frenchman Joseph Marie Jacquard (1753-1834), whose mad dream of an automated loom nudged along the birth of computers.

Jacquard Loom

In any loom, the fabric is created by stringing and stretching a series of warp (vertical) threads across the loom, then lifting the warp threads and throwing weft (horizontal) threads on a shuttle back and forth through a series of raised and dropped warp threads. By the 18th century, the lifting of the warp threads—allowing changes in colors—was completed by a draft boy or girl, a child with the hellish job of sitting on the loom for 6-8 hours a day and repeatedly lifting the 30-pound bundle of warp threads. By the 1730s, European looms used a punch card system—a set of punchcards (more like a piano roll than a 1970s punchcard) told the machine which warp threads to lift for each weft line. But the process still involved human intervention—the heavy lifting by the draft children didn't change.
1728 Human driven punch card loom at the Musée des arts et métiers, Paris, France. Image credit: Moof, Flickr. CC by 2.0
1728 Human driven punch card loom at the Musée des arts et métiers, Paris, France. Image credit: Moof, Flickr. CC by 2.0.

Jacquard was a weaver by trade who had started his career as one of those draft boys, and by the late 1790s he was working on a way to mechanize the method. Jacquard's loom was the first to automate the lifting process: instead of children, a treadle lifted the threads according to the punch cards. In 1805, his process showed enough promise that Napoleon commissioned Jacquard to perfect it in the French national interest and paid him a generous annuity and royalties on machines he produced.

Punch card production was still time-consuming, involving a design process, mapping the design to the number of holes on a card, then adapting to the restrictions of the fabric grid. But they were reusable. The punch cards were made using a lisage machine ("creating the draft") and once punched, they were stitched together in a chain hung on a roller in the machine. A 60-inch piece of fabric, such as that Vesta left to us, consists of 4,600 warp threads; the Jacquard machines required 600 hooks to lift the threads run by over 3,500 punch cards. Compared to the painstaking process of Kashmiri weaving, making a shawl using a Jacquard loom took weeks rather than months or years.

By 1812, there were 11,000 Jacquard looms in use in France; by 1832, there were 600 in Britain. In England, weavers began using steam engines to power the drive belt, and prices for the imitations plummeted. One of the largest manufacturers in Europe was based in Paisley, Scotland; eventually, the swirly buta pattern became known as paisley.

The Life of a Fad

During the crinoline era of women's dress, the paisley shawls were wrapped around and draped over the wide crinoline skirts of many women, including Queen Victoria. Napoleon's empress, Josephine, purchased hundreds of them. The cheaper shawls made such styles available to most women in England and France, but pushback from the elite members of European society stereotyped the imitations as lousy taste, a key debate within the design reform movement that viewed imitations of a perfectly designed textile as tacky. The shawls appeared in novels and paintings of the day, making a sharp distinction between Indian-made originals and French and Scottish-made copies. Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Charlotte Bronte, Honore Balzac: in these novels, married women, upper-class women, and/or morally correct women wore Indian shawls (and in some cases French shawls), while single, lower-class women or sex workers wore "provincial" copies.

The peak of popularity of the shawls was in the 1850s and 1860s, but when fashion disposed of the crinoline for a smaller bustle, the shawls fell out of popularity, and by 1870 the fad was over. Researchers also suggest that after the Sepoy rebellion of 1857, wearing the shawls came to be seen as a support for India's independence.
1934 Jacquard loom reproduction, made operational in 2006. Henry Ford's Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan. Image credit: [https://www.flickr.com/photos/maiac/14051839842|Maia C, Flickr], CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed
1934 Jacquard loom reproduction, made operational in 2006. Henry Ford's Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan. Image credit: Maia C, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed.

Secondary Uses

After the fad faded, paisley shawls were reused as piano shawls or lap robes, or remodeled into garments. The shawls' most influential byproduct was the recognition of the Jacquard loom by pioneer computer scientists Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace. They purchased and studied a Jacquard loom to help them develop the first calculating computers. Although Babbage never did develop a working computer, Babbage's Difference Engine was intended to compile mathematical tables and is widely understood today as a pioneer innovation in computer technology.

Examples similar to Vesta's shawl can be found on Etsy and eBay, listed as an "antique paisley shawl" for ~$200–$500.


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Created by KKris. Last Modification: Sunday 17 of December, 2023 09:10:32 EST by KKris.