The “paisley” motif, a curved teardrop shape with a bent tip, is a common phenomenon in contemporary design. Eye-popping paisley designs were popular in the 1960s, and small, neat paisley motifs perpetually adorn men’s ties.
Where did this motif originate? Why is it called “paisley”?
One theory is that it developed from a wing or leaf form that first appeared in ancient Near Eastern cultures and evolved over time into a cypress tree or tree-of-life motif. Another thought is that it was derived from the image of a simple single flower flanked by leaves, even with a few roots at the base of the stem, established in Persian art by the 17th century. Whatever the case, in India and Persia this motif is called a buta or boteh. Westerners identify its many variants as a cone, cypress, pine, mango, teardrop, or paisley. Whether leaf or flower, it became ever more elaborate as it crossed cultures and became a focus for fashion novelty.
In the mid 18th century, shawls and sashes woven in Kashmir and containing this motif began to be imported into Europe. By the late 1790s, they had become important fashion accessories for women of the elite classes. At the same time, Kashmiri weavers began to emigrate to other regions of northern India, establishing shawl weaving wherever they settled. The technique they used, twill tapestry weave, was exceptionally time-consuming.One complicated shawl might take three years to complete. To meet consumer demand, Europeans began to imitate the shawls using mechanized looms. One of the most important centers for the production of these textiles was the small town of Paisley in southwestern Scotland. Gradually, all shawls of this type, no matter where they were made, became commonly known as Paisley shawls. The shawls went out of fashion beginning in the 1870s, but by the early 20th century, the motif itself had taken on the name.
Design ideas for these shawls flowed freely between India and Europe. The textiles in this exhibition illustrate the transformation of the Indian buta into the European paisley over the course of one hundred years.