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Paisley Shawls

The Paisley pattern is today widely accepted as an integral part of Scotland's heritage. But the plain truth is that the design did not originate in the town whose name it bears. In fact it can be traced back to ancient Babylon, where the motif was a fertility symbol based on the growing shoot of the date palm, regarded by that civilisation as the Tree of Life. Use of the motif was widespread in Asia through the centuries, and was eventually taken up by the shawl weavers of Kashmir in the 16th century. Kashmir shawls were first imported to Britain by the East India Company, inspiring weavers in Edinburgh and Norwich (1777 and 1784 respectively) to attempt to make cheaper copies.

Paisley only entered the field around 1805 when a shortage of raw materials decimated the town's once prosperous silk industry, leaving many highly skilled weavers idle. Extra hands were needed to fill Edinburgh shawl contracts and so some work was sent to Paisley. The manufacturers there were quick to realise that this new line could be profitable, and so took up shawl weaving on their own account. The skills of the Paisley weavers were such that they were soon able to make technical adaptations to the looms that were to facilitate the weaving of the highly complex patterns.

 

Initially, the draw-loom was used, as it was the only type of loom capable of weaving curved line patterns. But increasingly through the 1820s and 1830s the French-perfected Jacquard loom, with its punch card control system, replaced the older machines and enabled the weaving of even more complex designs. It was the design of the shawl that took up four-fifths of the time, trouble and expense of its creation. So it was here that the Paisley manufacturer found ways of cutting their expenses, and thereby undercutting the prices of their competitors. Few of the shawl companies went to the expense of setting up their own design departments. More often they purchased patterns from freelance designer or even bought whole portfolios of design from Paris studios. They were also frequently denounced by manufacturers in Norwich and Edinburgh for quite simply 'stealing' popular designs and reproducing them more cheaply. This situation got so bad that eventually the Norwich manufacturers persuaded the government to allow, from 1842, the patenting of designs for periods of three, six or twelve months in order to protect them from what today would be called 'industrial espionage'.

So why, when Edinburgh and Norwich had a lead of some 25 years, was it the name of Paisley that was attached to these copies of Indian shawls? The answer is mass production. Through superior organisation of its labour force, by the 19th century Paisley was producing the majority of British imitation Indian shawls. Fashionable ladies began to go into the shops asking to see a selection of Paisleys. When the shawl finally went out of fashion in the 1870s, the taste for the exotic decreed that the pattern would still find favour, and gradually the name transferred. So today the whole of the English-speaking world knows the prehistoric motif that came to Europe via Asia by the name of Paisley, Scotland.

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