Shawl Weaving in Paisley

Paisley is world famous for the teardrop or pinecone pattern which appears on many items of clothing.

"Paisley Pattern" is in fact a misnomer. The teardrop shape can be traced back some 2000 years. Known in Britain as Celtic art, it died out in Europe during the Roman period, but continued to flourish in India. In Kashmir, it was used on shawls. Brought back here by members of the East India Company, the shawls became very fashionable, but they were prohibitively expensive.

They were therefore imitated by British textile designers, who sold them at a tenth of the price. Soon, they were all the rage. In Paisley, weavers were swamped with orders.

In 1766, as Enid Gauldie points out in her booklet "Spinning and Weaving", published by National Museums of Scotland, there were 1767 handloom weavers in the town. After the introduction of shawl manufacture in 1803 the number grew to 7000.
From then until about 1870, when the fashion passed and ladies' tailored coats and jackets replaced shawl wearing, Paisley weavers were occupied with the making of shawls in silk gauze, muslin and fine wool of very striking colour and pattern.

Paisley had already, in the 18th century, established a reputation for silk weaving. In 1781, out of 6800 handlooms in the whole district, 2000 were weaving linen and 4800 silk. The Paisley weavers had the skill to take advantage of the very demanding new fashion when it came and they were already equipped with looms suited to the needs of the industry.

The fashion in the early 1800s, we are told at the Paisley Museum, was for the straight, narrow Empire line for which the flowing lines of the shawl proved the perfect accessory. A lady at that time would be described as being "well draped" rather than "well dressed". The shawls were about 8 feet by 4 feet, and were worn in many artistic ways - draped loosely behind the back, trailed along the ground, carried in the hand, or hanging over the arm.

In the 1820s the fashion changed - and with it, the shawl, which became square rather than rectangular. It kept its place as an essential part of the elegant lady's wardrobe.

Another change in the 1840s brought the wide crinoline skirts into vogue, and again the shawl changed its shape. It returned to the rectangle, but now on a much larger scale. It was difficult to make coats to fit over the crinolines, and so these large rectangular shawls became the everyday outdoor wear of the fashionable woman until the early 1860s

It was fashion, however, which eventually proved to be the shawl's downfall.

The year 1870 marked the final change from the crinoline. The bustle-clad lady could not hide her decorative rear view under an all-enveloping shawl!

The weavers of Paisley were said to be the most intelligent, the most widely read and the most radical of all Scottish workers. Their wages in the late 18th and early 19th centuries were high enough to allow them some spare time for pastimes such as gardening. It may be no accident that most of their patterns were based on stylised flower designs. One pattern often seen has a border of formally styled carnations or pinks, because the Paisley weavers shared a particular hobby of growing competition pinks.