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...
Above Photo Cred: unwinnable
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.
Photo Cred: The Guardian
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.
Photo Cred: Brandeis Magazine, Morrison Hotel, Way We Wore, PC Music
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.
Photo cred: Harper's Bazaar
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.
25 thoughts on “A Brief and Amusing History of Paisley”
I am loving your history lessons! You are a wonderful writer…
Im so happy to hear that!
My very favorite shirt ever was from about 3rd or 4th grade, and it was pink paisley on one side and blue paisley on the other. I was invincible when I was wearing that shirt! Thanks for the memory (and history lesson)!
I bet you looked fantastic 🙂
That was fun!
My boyfriend LOVES his paisley duvet cover. But didn’t know the pattern was called “paisley” until I commented on it. He’s been calling them “amoebas” for years!!!
hahahaha! Amoebas? That’s a new one, but I like it!
Uhm, did I miss the David Bowie part?
Well, he just wore paisley. That’s the whole part. haha 😉
Huh. I always think of seahorses when I see paisley. Suzy, once again, you have enlightened me.
super fun read. Thanks
I’m still on the fence about paisley. I just can’t decide if it’s ACTUALLY cool, or if it’s had its day (You know… Like mission brown… and burnt orange…together… in a kitchen.) I am happy to be wrong because I could be heavily influenced by that red paisley one piece pants thingy I wore in the 90s, with a stretchy knit cummerbund around my waist… aaaaah, memories.
Have I got a valid email now?Before I try to post my comment for 3rd time.
I must admit I am always attracted to paisley but never buy it for fear it dates me. Now I know my secret love must be from my sorority girl/slightly hippy days in the 70s. Love this post!!
The story that I heard was that the design was inspired by a cypress tree that had been bent in the wind over the years.
Oh I like that!
Awesome Suzy. I was, and still am, a paisley fan since childhood. I wonder how I knew this as design as paisley when I was 8? Love these history lesson.
Haha! Those 8-year-old romances stay with us forever 🙂
Textile history with guffaws! Thanks, Suzy.
Oh you girl!!!! I am forwarding this to my #2 son, who is a pilot in Afghanistan, looking for the bad guys! Before he was deployed to Afgan…….he took himself to Nepal and hiked the Himalayas! Can’t wait to ask him if he saw any goat hair stuck on the rocks!
Thanks again for keeping us informed about such important STUFF!!!! Love it, love you!!!
I’ve always liked paisley. The first pillowcase I made was a nice paisley design with a coordinating color for the cuff.
You make crafting so interesting. Hope you’re feeling well, let us know when it’s time to make some bibs.
Thanks for your story about Paisley, my most favourite pattern ever! I always wanted to change my name to Paisley that’s how much I liked it, not to mention I think it sounds cool. I too remember my pink paisley shirt in grade school and speaking of shirts I would love to get my hands on the last velvet one you posted.
Your article definitely has plenty of PAISLEY POWER! excellent images and written with good humour.