Paisley Shawls - or more accurately Kashmir Shawls

From: Thursday, 16 June 2016 to Monday, 6 February 2017

Curated by Deborah Whitford

Welcome to our exhibition of warm woollen shawls which have been popular for a long time having been politically and economically involved in the everyday life of men and women in a time now well past. And they are still enjoyed for their warmth and spectacular beauty.

The Paisley shawl is similar to a Kashmir shawl as it was inspired by the shawls of Kashmir which where intricately hand woven and embroidered in Kashmir well before the time of British rule in India. The shawls were imported into England and worn over the very fine voile empire dresses so popular in Jane Austen’s England.  The fine voile dresses where a reaction to the opulence which had helped fuel the French Revolution and the cotton dress conjured the image of pastoral simplicity.

Europe having long, cold winters and short summers, the Kashmir shawl was a practical and attractive counterpart to the voile dresses and the exotic nature of the design made them highly desirable.

The French took up the fashion first and as the shawls’ popularity grew French textile companies began to produce the famous shawls which in turn were coveted and copied by the English who began to produce the shawls themselves most famously in the towns of Norwich, Edinburgh and Paisley. And now we see where the term paisley came from as the English call the shawls Paisley and the same name Paisley is given to the famous symbolic design.  The French call both the shawls and the famous symbol Kashmir.

This is a pocket history and it is not absolute as other names are used for the symbol making it a mystery to some degree.  

I became fascinated by Kashmir Shawls some years ago and started collecting the various versions from Kashmir, England and France. I also found the design was intrinsic to shawls, from Russia, Eastern Europe and Iran. It would appear that the Kashmir design originated in Iran and like many great designs it travelled and became part of many cultural identities.

The shawls were originally only made from the cashmere of the wild local goats and the fabric was incredibly fine with a delicate pattern woven at each end and sometimes along the long edge.  It was the fineness and softness of the fibre, not known in Europe that attracted early travellers to the shawls.

The shawls had a unique weaving technique that required the weft (across) thread to be twisted to give it strength. The combination of this technique and the intricate designs made the process complex, taking at least eighteen months to three years to complete one shawl.  The shawls were therefore treasured and when they became available for sale in Europe they were very expensive and they remained an expensive item even under European manufacture.

When I went to India I did a lot of research by asking about the design and I was given many replies but what I found most intriguing was that the Indians I spoke with all called the Kashmir shawl and symbol a Paisley.

The Kashmir design is said to come from either the side hand print of a clenched fist or the flower of the mango.  As already mentioned nothing about the shawl is absolutely conclusive which only adds to the mystique.

The shawl has also survived in Kashmir which is remarkable as the production in Europe damaged the production in Kashmir.  Kashmir still produces the shawls but not as they were, to a different standard with new ideals however a good shawl made in Kashmir can take up to 12 months or more to weave.  There has been a resurgence to revive some of the older techniques and these shawls take longer to make. The traditional shawls continue to be woven and embroidered by Muslim men with some of the preparations for the weaving done by women including sorting the wool, combing, spinning and dyeing.

The wonderful Kashmir shawl is warm against the cold and wind and keeps you dry in the rain. The Kashmir shawl is a practical and beautiful item of traditional clothing which translate well into our modern day wardrobe.

I have not completed my investigations into the Kashmir and much of the information in the article has been collected from conversations with other textile collectors or dealers and I do not have the usual list of reference books. But there is one book which I can recommend on French Cashmere.

Cashmere - A French Obsession by Monique Levi-Strauss published by Thames and Hudson