A Brief and Amusing History of Paisley

Last week we journeyed into the wonderful history of polka dots. (FYI, there is an aaaaamazing video that you shouldn’t miss.) Now that you are total polka buffs, we’re moving onto…paisley! We all know what paisley is, right? It’s that iconic fabric pattern featuring the teardrop shape. Or is it a fig shape? Kidney shape? Crooked almond? Mango? Feather? Little swimming tadpole? It’s OK if we can’t agree – pretty much the entire world is in a debate over what exactly that paisley shape is supposed to be. What we do know for sure, though, is the history of paisley. Well… kinda.

The Paisley party (probably) started in Persia, where they called it “Boteh,” the Persian word for shrub (which means we’re probably all wrong about what that thing actually is. Especially the “Crooked Almond” people.) This is why pretty much every Persian rug everywhere has a paisley… er… Boteh shape on it somewhere.

Though many people give Persia credit, there are also really old paisley sightings in artifacts from Iran, and the Roman Empire. I’m thinking the history of paisley is not going to be as straight forward as I first thought…

The Paisley Boom

Even though paisley is incredibly old, it didn’t get popular globally until the early 1700s, with the establishment of the East India Company. Kashmiri shawls and textiles from India could not be imported to Europe fast enough. Kashmiri shawls were awesome because they were SO HARD TO MAKE. The hair came from a super special goat, modernly known as a Cashmere goat (Ahhhh. Sound familiar, right?) These little goats wandered around in the middle of Asia, usually mountain climbing in the Himalayas.

All of this high altitude climbing toughened them up and made their hair extremely warm, resistant to the cold, and beautifully fine. When these supergoats got hot in the summer, they rubbed their hair off on rocks (which is totally what I do, too) and left it for actual people to climb the actual mountains and find the stray hair and collect it with their actual hands.

It’s pretty much the least efficient business model I can think of, especially because they used the “twill-tapestry” technique to weave the shawls. Using this specialized technique meant that a complicated shawl could take years to make.

Pictured above: 19th century Kashmiri shawl

But yeah. People love things that are exclusive and hard to to make, so everyone went pretty wild over Kashmiri shawls. Guess what patterns they loved the best? Oooooh yessssss. Paisley.

By the late 1800s, people were in an all-out paisley frenzy, thanks to Napoleon’s wife Josephine who was a major hoarder, evidently. This is when the English and Scottish jumped on board, looking for faster ways to crank out paisley shawls (which wasn’t hard, since the old shawls took FOREVER.) They eventually settled for a combo of silk, cotton, and wool. They sacrificed some major softness by not mountain climbing for goat rubbings, but as soon as they got some paisley up on that less-soft fabric, people were all about it.


History of Paisley: Piracy!

In the early 19th century, the little town of Paisley, Scotland, entered the paisley printing race in a big way. It totally stole the popular pattern, and set up the brand-spanking-new invention called the Jacquard loom to mass produce shawls for every classy lady on Earth. That’s also when people decided to call it “Paisley” … you know, after the late-to-the-game mass shawl producers that were really into pattern piracy.  Pretty much everyone everywhere EXCEPT the people in Paisley were kind of annoyed, but they got over it, and everyone made up nicknames just to stick it to the Scottish:

  • Annoyed French People called it “Tadpole.”
  • Viennese, “Little Onion.”
  • Welsh, “Welch Pears.”

And the good old quilters in America went with “Persian Pickles.” (Way to give credit where it’s ACTUALLY due, quilters. You’re the best.)


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Let’s Get Groovy, Maaaaan

Fast forwarding here a bit… paisley has had its ups and downs when it comes to popularity, like we all do, but it made a major comeback in the 1960s… when things got psychedelic. Hippies, as some of you know, were really into anything from India. This really amped up after the Beatles went on their Indian excursion.

When John Lennon got home, he had his Rolls-Royce painted in a paisley pattern, and really, the paint job on John’s car was always the new standard of cool for all American youngsters. Cue a huge boom in paisley popularity. It was showing up on bandanas in the pockets of boy scouts and working men, and even big-time gang members were into the once Grandmas-only print.

Things culminated with Prince’s paisley fascination, which led him to create the recording label Paisley Park Records, along with Paisley Park Studios, and the hit song … wait for it … “Paisley Park.” By 1985, paisley was full blown rock and roll.

And since the print had now taken the hundreds-of-years journey from Persia to pop culture, people decided it deserved its own museum. It’s in Paisley, Scotland, naturally, and it’s home to some pretty rocking shawls.

And that’s the brief history of paisley and how it became one of the most loved, arbitrarily named, and vaguely-shaped patterns ever. Now I’m going to go plan a new project with my favorite almond-feather kidney-mango tadpole fabric, stat! Or at least, buy this amazing velvet shirt for my husband.

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