Fabric of society – An Irishwoman’s Diary on the Paisley shawl
The teardrop motif was used on the borders of clothing in Kashmir and the East India Company brought examples of this pattern back to Britain
My mother thinks I have lost the run of myself since I bought the shawl. And to tell you the truth she may not be very far wrong. I love wearing it.
I love its adaptability and how it sits so very comfortably around me.
And when I sling one corner over my right shoulder and fasten it with my Tara brooch, I wouldn’t call Fionn MacCumhaill my uncle.
This all began in the town of Paisley in Scotland.
The reason for my being there is another story.
Suffice to say, I found myself with three hours to spare before my onward journey and I decided to make the best of that time.
In the Paisley Museum I discovered that its origin can be traced back in history to the Indo-European cultures of 2,000 years ago
But what was there to see in Paisley? Somebody directed me to the Paisley Museum.
I do not know what I was expecting to see but this was no ordinary run-of-the-mill museum. Here was a display of machinery and textiles depicting the history of the Paisley shawl.
Do you know that very familiar sort of teardrop shape that is the Paisley design?
You see it mostly on silk ties and scarves.
In the Paisley Museum I discovered that its origin can be traced back in history to the Indo-European cultures of 2,000 years ago.
It is a Celtic art motif that died out when Rome spread its boundaries.
However, it became a firm favourite in India and continued to flourish there in many different art forms. The teardrop motif was used on the borders of clothing in Kashmir and the East India Company brought examples of this pattern back to England. Silk shawls swung into fashion but they were difficult to come by and consequently very expensive.
When Napoleon’s Josephine chose to drape a huge Paisley shawl over her lily-white shoulders, every woman in France had to have one
British textile manufacturers imitated them in cheaper yarn and material and were able to sell at one-tenth of the cost of the silk version. Business boomed. Weaving centres at Edinburgh, Norwich and Paisley were swamped with orders.
Even with changing fashions, and you can see models of clothing in Paisley Museum, the shawl never went out of style.
It blended in perfectly with ladies' fashion of the era. The empire-line style in diaphanous muslin was all the rage, and when Napoleon’s Josephine chose to drape a huge Paisley shawl over her lily-white shoulders, every woman in France had to have one.
The Paisley Shawl survived the coming of the crinoline in 1840 and the bustle of 1870. The Paisley factory survived too but because of the technical and mechanical limitations of the looms then available, early Paisley shawls were small and had simple colour schemes.
The decoration was always in three colours and confined to the ends, and the borders had to be made separately and then sewn on to a plain centre.
In the 1830s the Jacquard loom was invented. It was possible to cover every inch of the shawl with intricate designs and to increase the number of colours used.
There were different sizes also. The real Paisley shawl was five or six feet square. What they called the Scottish plaid was a rectangle 12 feet by five feet, and the three-quarter plaid was eight feet by five feet.
So, there I was in the Paisley Museum moving from glass-case to spot-lighted glass-case where the shawls and plaids were draped to show them to the best advantage.
And I was looking at the history of fashion over several years. There were shawls with a right and wrong side and an 1865 model that was reversible but had never become popular because it was too heavy.
Then there was a coat. A Paisley coat.
Someone in the 1890s had taken the intricately woven material and sliced it up to construct a tailored coat.
To me, it looked like the destruction of a marvellous piece of weaving after viewing the shawls so beautifully draped to show the Paisley design to the best advantage just like precious jewels.
In the cutting out of the material to make the coat, the perfect little teardrop designs had their heads chopped off and the tails were lost in tightly stitched seams. It looked like a straitjacket.
Give me the shawl anytime.
When in Paisley I bought myself a Paisley shawl. And I love it. It sits around my shoulders like an ancient Celtic Brat.
Maybe my mother is right. I have lost the run of myself but at my age I think I can afford to be a little outrageous.