Beyond the Fringe: Shawls of Paisley Design

by Meg Andrews



Paisley Shawl



Shawls of Paisley design were in fashion
for nearly 100 years.

Pashmina shawls are of the highest quality made from the pashmina goat from Kashmir, India. Its fleece has been used for thousands of years to make the highest quality of shawls called pashminas. Cashmere or Kashmir shawls were of a very soft fabric made from the wool of the Cashmere goat.

Kashmir and Shawls of Paisley Design



(1) Mother and Two Children by A E Chalon, c. 1812.
(courtesey of the Geffrye Museum)


Shawls of Paisley design were in fashion for nearly 100 years, from around 1780 until the 1870’s (1). During this time millions were woven, embroidered and printed in Kashmir, Persia, India, Russia, USA and Europe, in France at Paris and Lyon, Austria in Vienna, in England at Norwich and in Scotland at Edinburgh, Glasgow and Paisley itself. It was the woven Kashmir shawls which first caught women's imagination, with European manufacturers quick to emulate by weaving or printing. Paisley produced shawls the most economically and for the longest period, the name becoming synonymous with the place of manufacture.

In order to write about shawls of British manufacture I need first to explain about the Kashmir shawl industry.


Kashmir Shawls


Shawls have been woven in Kashmir since about the eleventh century, but the industry producing what we refer to as a Kashmir shawl is thought to have begun during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (2,3). During the fifteenth century Persian replaced Sanskrit as the official language and the world ‘shawl’ derives from the Persian shal, denoting a class of woven fabric rather than an article of dress. During its hitext Kashmir experienced Mughal, Afghan and Sikh invasions, all of which left their stylistic influence on the shawl.

The Mughals, who inhabited the vast Central Asian steppe, conquered Kashmir in 1586. Under their rule the arts blossomed and the shawl industry grew. Weavers were brought in from Eastern Turkestan where the type of weave later used for Kashmir shawls was practiced. Persian men had traditionally worn narrow waist girdles of shawl fabric, as part of male dress, while the Indians wove wide shoulder mantles for male attire. These were usually given as prestigious gifts, and one can clearly see the honour in which they were held by looking at miniatures of the period, where the proud owner is seen wearing such an accessory. From about 1775 Kashmir shawls were acquired by travelers, explorers, military personnel and members of the East India Company who appreciating their beauty and warmth, brought them back as presents. In Carola Oman's Life of Sir Walter Scott, The Wizard of the North, it is recorded that Scott's French bride Charlotte Carpentier was given a Kashmir shawl in 1797 for her trousseau which cost 50 guineas (£50/ $100), a huge sum.



Motif Development

The earliest design on Kashmir seventeenth and eighteenth century shawls was a single flowering plant complete with roots, inspired by English herbals (books with plant illustrations) which reached the Mughal court during the seventeenth century. This design gradually developed into an upright spray of flowers, and by around 1800 became the stylized cone-shaped motif known as the boteh, which we now tend to call the Paisley pine. The shape of the motif changed over the decades, from a small squat cone to a very elongated curve.

There are many theories about the boteh or pine motif; Paisley Museum's explanation seems perhaps the most logical. The pattern can be traced back to ancient Babylon, where a tear-drop shape was used as a symbol to represent the growing shoot of a date palm. The palm provided food, drink, clothing (woven fibers) and shelter, and so became regarded as the ‘Tree of Life', with its growing shoot being gradually recognized as a fertility symbol.

Production Methods

By the mid-nineteenth century demand in Europe for Kashmir shawls was enormous and the demand could not be satisfied. Before 1850 one man would weave a shawl on a hand loom. After this date several men or boys would weave a small section of a shawl, which would be cut out and pieced together, a patchwork of small pieces, and sewn into a shawl by a shawl tailor or rafugar. An order worked in this way could be completed in one-and-a-half months instead of the two to three years it would take to weave a shawl. Another even quicker method to increase production was to embroider shawls, either partially combining this technique with woven shawls or completely embroidering.. Amazingly, with both these methods joins cannot be detected and the design flows over the whole shawl.

The European manufacturers were not slow to realise the potential of the shawl market, with Britain taking the lead. Both Edinburgh in 1790 and Norwich in 1792, began to imitate Kashmir shawls on hand looms; Paisley followed in 1805 (6). Paisley introduced an attachment to the handloom in 1812, which enabled five different colours of yarn to be used, instead of just two colours, indigo and madder, thus better imitating the Kashmir shawls. Agents were sent from Paisley to London to copy the latest Kashmir shawls as they arrived by sea and, in eight days imitations were being sold in London for £12, the original Kashmir shawl costing £70-100.


Differences Between
Kashmir & European Shawls

The two basic differences between Kashmir shawls and their imitators are the type of cloth and the weaving method. The Kashmir shawls being woven from hair, were lighter and smooth with a natural sheen, whilst the European shawls, until the end of the 1830's, were woven from silk or wool which made them much heavier and less fine (6,7).


Kashmir shawl


(6) British hand loom woven wool & silk stole, c. 1810 Notice the similarity of design of this and below.


Kashmir stole


(7) Kashmir stole, 1830


Methods of weaving were quite different in Kashmir and Europe. In Kashmir the shawls were woven in the twill tapestry technique, which is similar to weaving a European tapestry. The wefts (horizontals) which form the pattern do not run right across the fabric, but are woven back and forth around the warp (vertical) threads, where each particular colour is needed. Woven with goat's fleece, the finest softest fleece, shah tus (king's wool) came from beneath the coarse outer hair of the underbelly of wild central Asian goats. These goats had such hair as a protective layer against the extreme cold in the high altitudes of the Himalayan region at 1,500 ft. In spring, the goats would rub themselves against the bushes from where it was collected. This quality of fleece was used only for the most expensive shawls. The majority being woven from pashmina, hair from the underbelly of domesticated goats. The best fleece was left the natural cream colour, whilst the darker pashmina was dyed with natural vegetable dyes.


The early British shawls had warp (vertical) threads of cotton or silk. These threads were strong and could bear the strain of being lifted to introduce the pattern threads of the weft (horizontal) thread. These could be of wool, cotton or silk. Wool was not strong enough for use as a warp until the French invented a yarn of wool fibres spun round a silk core. This, together with the invention of the Jacquard loom at the turn of the nineteenth century, enabled more intricate patterns to be woven and established the French as leaders in the field. The first all-wool shawls were not made in Paisley until 1823.


Up until the 1820’s when the Jacquard loom was introduced into Paisley, weaving was a cottage industry, with a weaver owning his own handlooms. He lived typically in a single storey house with a passage through the middle; on one side were his living quarters, comprising one or two rooms plus a loft, on the other side a weaving shop with up to four looms.


The weaver, who was always a male, carried out almost all the different processes involved in weaving a shawl, often preparing the simple designs of the early period and making the cards which defined the pattern, as well as selling the shawls. Sometimes a merchant financed the materials and provided transport whilst an agent acted as middle man between the two. With the introduction of the drawloom, which required a drawboy to pull the ropes controlling the overhead harness, the weaver would call out his instructions. The shawl was woven with the underside facing the weaver so if these instructions were misconstrued, defects might not be noticed until a few hours later.


The finished shawls would be taken to the merchant who only paid the weaver if he was satisfied with the quality. The shawl would then be clipped to remove the loose threads at the back, washed, stretched and pressed to give a surface sheen. The Jacquard loom, introduced to Paisley in the 1820’s, used punched cards instead of a drawboy, eliminating human error and reducing the workforce on a loom to one. These looms, much larger and more expensive, changed a cottage industry into a factory based one. Now there was a division of labour and people were employed for particular skills.


Fashion Dictates

During the 100 years the shawl was in fashion, its shape changed to suit the dresses with which it was worn. From 1770-1810 simple high-waisted white muslin dresses were fashionable. With these neo-Classical dresses, simple long light stoles with narrow borders and deeper woven ends or small one-yard squares shawls with narrow borders folded into a triangle were worn. The centres were either plain or had a small repeating sprig or pip design. The ends and narrow borders were separately woven, often having small meandering flowers or pine motifs, using just three or four colours. Such a shawl would have cost around £20.


The 1820's saw great changes to the industry with the Jacquard loom being introduced into Paisley. Now shawls could be woven in one piece with bolder designs and more colours. Dresses were of silk, still with high waists but with bodice detailing such as pintucks and wide puff sleeves, requiring a larger shawl. During the 1830's the skirt got larger, balanced by huge sleeves, until by 1840 several starched white petticoats or a horsehair petticoat was worn, replaced in 1856 by whalebone hoops or the crinoline frame (10).


It was at this time of the widening skirts that the shawl really became popular, with at least one being included in every better class trousseau. In Scotland they were known as 'kirking' (church) shawls when they were worn to church on the first Sunday after the wedding and then used again at christenings.


Paisley had become pre-eminent in Great Britain by reducing costs through sub–division and specialization of labour. They appealed to the mass market of the middle and eventually working classes. By 1850, Edinburgh could no longer compete with Paisley and stopped producing shawls. Norwich and France continued to produce very good quality examples.


(11) Typical Paisley worn with crinoline skirt, when it was at its widest. c. 1865


It was difficult to wear a coat with a crinoline frame (wire underskirt) although short mantles and capes were worn. Most people preferred a warm enveloping shawl, with a stunning design (11). From 1840-75 shawls were made much larger to cover the skirt: 5 feet (1.50 m) square; 5 feet (1.50m) by 8 feet 4 inches (2.50m); 5 feet (1.50 m) by 10/12 (3/3.60m) feet. Square shawls were folded in triangles with a top flap just slightly turned over, whilst the large rectangles could be folded into two and caught at the front with a brooch and the full splendour of the shawl splayed out over the crinoline (12).



(13) Paisley woven wool and silk shawl with a typical allover design, c 1860


Paisley called these large shawls 'filled harness' plaids or shawls (13). By 1860, a large shawl could cost about 17s.6d to (46s old money), or 87p to £1.35, took 18 days to weave and could have up to 15 colours, whilst a Kashmir shawl could have four times as many colours. The Paisley would weigh 50 oz whilst the Kashmir, of slightly smaller size weighed 5 -9 oz, making the Kashmir shawl greatly popular with those who could afford them. By 1865 a reversible shawl was invented at Paisley which was of double thickness with all the loose unclipped threads sandwiched between the two layers, resulting in a heavy and unpopular shawl.


(12) Three ways to wear a shawl 1860s


Norwich, Paisley, Glasgow and other towns printed shawls which were immensely popular. Beautiful flimsy silk gauze examples, with bright clear colours were printed for evening wear for the middle and upper classes (14). Heavier shawls of wool and silk with light coloured centres were used for summer wear and dark centres for winter. Printers copied the designs of the woven examples, using wooden blocks and later blocks with the pattern lines inlaid with metal (15).


(14) Hand block printed silk gauze shawl, c. 1850


(15) Hand block printed silk shawl, c. 1850


The blocks could of course be interchanged to produce an infinite number of designs. Later, roller-printed shawls were produced. Millions of shawls were printed for the mass market, mainly on wool and cotton or wool and silk grounds. These were usually extremely attractive, with clear vibrant or soft pretty colours.


A combination of events led to the decline of popularity of the shawl in the early 1870's. The Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 halted exports of shawls from Kashmir to France, resulting in the collapse of the industry. A shawl could not fall very successfully down the back with the bustle, that rear wired protrusion, which became so fashionable at the time. But probably the most defining factor was that by 1870 a woven Jacquard shawl could be brought for 20 s or £1 and an identical patterned cotton shawl for a few shillings. Once shawls had become so inexpensive that every woman could afford to own at least one, they fell out of fashion. Many were cut to make into stunning mantles which could be worn with the bustle dress.


Further Reading:

Irwin, John The Kashmir Shawl. Victoria and Albert Museum, 1973. ISBN 0112901646

Frank Ames The Kashmir Shawl. Antique Collectors Club, UK 1986 but recently reprinted. ISBN 0907462626

Clabburn, Pamela. The Norwich Shawl. HMSO, U.K. 1996. ISBN 0117015849

Clabburn, Pamela Shawls, Shire Books, re-published 2005. (

Reilly, Valerie The Paisley Pattern The Official Illustrated Hitext. 1987. Richard Drew, Glasgow ISBN 086267

Levi-Strauss, Monique The French Shawls. 1987 Dryad Press Ltd 1987. ISBN 0852197594



About the Author:

MEG ANDREWS web site:

Meg Andrews has been buying and selling collectable, hangable and wearable rare, unusual and interesting antique costumes and textiles for 22 years. Prior to this she established the Costume and Textile Department at Sotheby's. Andrews sells to major museums in the UK and abroad, particularly America. She also sells to collectors worldwide and to individuals who want a beautiful textile for purely decorative purposes. For 18 years, Andrews lectured at Sotheby's Institute on English Furnishings of the 16th and 17th centuries, Chinese Court Costumes and Kashmir and Shawls of Paisley Design. In 1986 she lectured at the Treasure Houses of Britain exhibition in Washington, DC on the textiles and costumes in the portraits.