Paisley is a Scottish town famous for its connection with the paisley pattern, but its story doesn’t begin there.
There aren’t many patterns as iconic as the paisley pattern. Its curved teardrop shape adorns textiles from every corner of the world, and has been a signature of Persian royalty, American cowboys, The Beatles, and everyone in between. Anyone who has travelled from Glasgow to Glasgow Airport (located in the nearby town of Paisley) in the last three years will have seen the advertising tower installed next to the motorway which is covered with the intricate print. This tower stands as an homage to its historical connection to the town, which became the main centre of its production in 19th century Britain. But contrary to its name, the history of the paisley pattern doesn’t begin in Paisley—in fact, far from it.
Called “boteh” or “buta”, meaning “flower bud” or “spray of leaves” in Persian, the teardrop-shaped motif used in the paisley pattern has a history stretching as far back as 2,000 BC. It is believed to have derived from a Zoroastrian symbol, an ancient Persian religion, depicting a cypress tree and flowers representing life and fertility. The motif appeared in India around the 11th century, specifically in the Kashmir region, and began to appear on luxury garments in the 16th century during Akbar’s reign. This is the period when the Kashmiri shawl became an important part of elite culture, being worn by Persian royalty as robes of honour. The shawl’s prestige came not only from the intricate beauty of the garments, but also their quality and the sheer time and effort their production entailed. Hand-woven from fine pashmina wool, which workers collected by hand from a specific species of goat found in the high Himalayas, one shawl would take a weaver 18 months or more to complete.
So how did a design rooted in ancient Persian culture come to reach such immense popularity in the West? The story of the Kashmiri shawl’s migration to Europe begins in the second half of the 18th century, when East India Company officers and soldiers returning from the colonies would bring back the garments as luxury gifts for their loved ones. They soon became a staple in upper-class women’s wardrobes across Europe, including French Empress (and Napoleon’s wife) Joséphine, who famously adored them. As the luxury shawls became increasingly popular across Europe, Kashmiri textile producers could no longer keep up with demand, so European textile manufacturers began to produce cheaper imitations to sell locally. Many were initially produced in Norwich and Edinburgh, but the town of Paisley soon took over the market and became the leading producer of Kashmiri-inspired woollen shawls in the early 19th century. This was largely due to the introduction of pattern copyrighting and Paisley weavers’ early use of the Jacquard loom which automated the manufacturing process. The town soon attracted thousands of workers to join this new industry, working in its numerous newly-opened thread mills. Now more readily available and cheaper, especially after printed paisley garments hit the market in the 1850s, paisley shawls entered the wardrobes of European women of all social classes.
Although their popularity decreased in around 1870 due to changes in fashion, the paisley pattern has come back time and time again in fashion and culture around the world. As technology advanced, designs became more complex, and the motif morphed from a naturalistic design into an abstracted curved teardrop shape. Paisley has played a key role in numerous fashion and design movements in the West, being adopted by Arts and Crafts movement leader William Morris as a key visual motif at the turn of the 20th century, and later becoming an emblem of the psychedelic Eastern-inspired fashion of the 60s and 70s. Paisley bandannas even took on symbolic meanings in the US, being used by gay men in 70s San Francisco to signify sexual preferences (known as “handkerchief code”), and by the L.A. Bloods and Crips gangs in the 80s as a sign of identification.
In an era of globalisation and cross-cultural influence, the boteh motif can be found in designs and textiles in every corner of the world. This is reflected by the range of different names assigned to it: “palm leaf” in France, “ham hock” in China, “cucumbers” in Russia—the list goes on. If one thing is clear, it’s that the paisley print has long captured the eyes and imaginations of audiences around the globe. Deeply cemented in a wide range of cultures, its enduring appeal seems to transcend time, a kind of visual connection with an ancient past. The women of Paisley who wove shawls for the European market in the 1800s were instrumental in bringing the paisley pattern into the Western mainstream, contributing to its widespread popularity which is still alive today. In celebrating the legacy of this influential print, it is crucial, however, to acknowledge that this history runs deeper than its Western adaptation. The paisley pattern is not a British invention, but it is a distinct embodiment of British culture as one that has been greatly shaped and enriched by influences beyond its borders.