Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures Tartan figures

Tartan Ferret

The Paisley Shawl

June 1949

The Paisley Shawls have been for long regarded as masterpieces of design and weaving, worthy to rank with the best tapestries, and greater than the finest brocades. It is to be regretted, therefore, that there is so much misapprehension and even ignorance among their admirers, and that the art and craft of their manufacture is almost forgotten. The generation that made them is dead and gone, those that knew them a little are almost gone, and only a modicum of knowledge of the technique of both design and weaving has survived. Even in 1903, Matthew Blair in " The Paisley Shawl" deplored the loss of all information regarding the bead-lam lappet, the deil or douge, and other strangely named objects. We cannot hope to compensate for this loss. We can only offer a brief sketch of the evolution and history of the Paisley Shawl for the benefit of those whose knowledge is even more imperfect than ours.

The production of " Paisley " shawls in Paisley lasted only seventy years, but the industry had its origin very much further back than the weaving of the first shawl about 1800. The shawls of Kashmir which were copied by the Paisley weavers were known to the Roman Caesars. Their designs are prehistoric.

Kashmir made shawls which were famous all over Asia from very early times ; but, though many went to the Russian nobles, few reached Western Europe till the latter part of the eighteenth century. Napoleon's officers are said to have been the means of introducing them from Egypt to France. A famous beauty, Mme Emile Gaudin, made them fashionable, and a regular trade in them sprang up with the Levant. The British Fleet was active in the Mediterranean about that time, which may explain the arrival of Kashmir shawls in this country.

A Kashmir shawl might take three people more than a year to make, so fine and so laborious were the methods of embroidery and hand weaving used. They were consequently very valuable, and such shawls became the property of princes and nobles, and were commonly given as royal gifts. The specimens which reached Europe fell into similar hands. A French trade journal Le Cachemirien, of designs copied from Indian examples cites the owners of the shawls - the King of the Belgians, the Due de Berri, and others. It was the nobility of Britain who acquired them too. In spite of their high price, the demand for Kashmir shawls became so great that it could hardly be satisfied. Then, inevitably, a cheaper variety was desired. Efforts to copy the Indian examples were made. These soon succeeded, and eventually the Indian trade was almost entirely superseded. This happened first in France, where Paris and Lyons became the centres of manufacture, next in Norwich and Edinburgh, and only lastly in Paisley, where about 1800 a Mr Paterson made the first attempt to copy an Indian shawl.

Paisley was important as a weaving town from Stewart times, and had profited from the teaching of Flemish weavers to become one of the leading producers of cloth in Scotland. In the eighteenth century its silks and gauzes eclipsed Spitalfields for a time ; it also had a name for fine lawn and for damask. Its weavers had therefore a command of the technique necessary before the copying of Indian designs could be attempted. But even the technique of damask weaving, which used a harness " draw-loom " to produce patterns, was inadequate for the task. The complexity of the Indian designs, the number of colours, and the nature of the materials employed, raised problems which were only gradually overcome. Paisley's eventual supremacy over the other imitators of the Kashmir shawls can be ascribed to the practical and speedy way these problems were solved. Although the greatest advances in the art of weaving - the invention of the Jacquard loom, and the spinning of " French " thread (wool yarn spun round a silk core) - were due to the French, Paisley's refinements led to a cheaper shawl which retained good qualities of colour and wear. It should be remembered that Paisley did not claim the superfine qualities of Edinburgh or Paris shawls, though Paisley shawls became popular in France, and were even exported to India.

The first " Paisley " shawls were different in many respects from the large cashmere plaid, covered or bordered with rich pattern, which is regarded as typical. The draw-loom of that period could not execute such elaborate designs, no suitable woollen yarn was found, and fashion demanded smaller shawls of pale colours. The earliest shawls were of two distinct types - square shawls with borders applied to centres either plain or sprigged with a small object known as a " spade," and long shawls with a deep border of Indian design at each end of a plain centre, with a narrower border applied all round. Both styles were copies from Indian models, and were made of silk. Commonly the centres were white, but occasionally buff or red. It was not till nearly 1820 that black became fashionable. The shawls often had ornamental comers or central medallions known as " pot-lids." The plaids more rarely had patterned centres. Shawls such as these may be seen in some of Raeburn's portraits painted about 1815, and these styles were fashionable until about 1830, with minor variations. In the latter part of the period wool was introduced as a weft, and darker colours were worn. The white long shawl retained its popularity throughout the whole seventy years of the shawl trade, the beautiful white-centred plaids of the eighteen-fifties and sixties being their logical development.

The ten-box lay, invented in 1812, increased the range of colours used, but no more than six were employed as a rule ; eight or nine are rarely found, except on later and more expensive examples. The first all-woollen shawl was made under French supervision about 1825, and was produced commercially by Mr Robert Kerr as a " Thibet " shawl in 1828. Before that time no woollen yarn capable of standing the strains imposed in the lifting of the warp threads by the harness had been found. The French had their speciality, the " French yarn " aforementioned, but permitted little of it to be exported. Paisley later copied this yarn, but silk warps were generally used throughout the whole period, except for the best grades of shawls. Cashmere, and mixtures of silk, wool, and cotton, came to be used for wefts. Various other inventions enabled more elaborate designs to be woven, including the striped " zebra " patterns which were so long favoured. It was no longer necessary to weave borders separately, but the draw-loom had limitations imposed by the nature of the harness and its drawboy operator. It was not until the Jacquard loom was adopted about 1840 that any great advance was possible. It was not till then that Paisley became a rival to Paris, which had used the Jacquard machines much earlier. With the Jacquard machine and the ten-box lay practically any design could be woven. The more complex patterns of the Kashmir shawls could now be copied, and they were. To be more exact, the French copies of the Kashmir shawls were in their turn copied, as is proved by the existence of many French design sketches in Paisley Museum.

From 1840 the shawls became more and more elaborate in design. The long shawl grew in size to cover the fashionable crinoline, and became known as a plaid. Queen Victoria purchased several shawls in 1842. She preferred long shawls to square ones, and so set a fashion which endured until plaids in their turn went out of favour. It is the productions of this later period (1840-70) which are typically Paisley shawls. Their appearance is too well known to need description. It will suffice to say that designs became more and more elaborate, tending at last to a stiffness never found in the Indian originals. At the same time the white-centred long shawl with its delicately coloured borders of simple pines, which came to be known as the " pale-end " plaid, maintained its popularity and in its cashmere version formed part of the trousseau of every well-to-do bride. It was worn to church after the honeymoon and at christenings, and so was sometimes called a " kirking shawl."

It was in the late eighteen-forties that a very different imitation of the Indian shawls was first made in Paisley. These were the printed shawls, which have been held to have contributed largely to the destruction of the shawl industry. They were, of course, much cheaper than the woven shawls. They were not, moreover, primarily imitations of them, as they were so different in Weight. Many of them were made of the fine silk or wool gauze for which Paisley was famous, others were of cashmere. They were more suitable for summer or evening wear, and could not take the place of a winter coat as the harness plaids did. Some of these gauze shawls were exquisite productions, but they were perishable. They cost a tenth of the price of a harness plaid, but they only wore a tenth as long. They are seldom found nowadays in good condition.

Yet another type which was manufactured in Paisley was the " double-cloth " shawl. This was a reversible shawl, made by a process invented about 1860. The inventor thought to make a fortune by his patent, and refused all offers for it. But before he could get the terms he wanted, someone else discovered the principle and made it freely accessible to the manufacturers. This kind of shawl, however, was not very successful. The double cloth enclosed all the threads not appearing in the pattern (which would have been cut away from the back of an ordinary web) and so made it weighty. A plaid of double cloth would have been insupportably heavy, and shawls were out of fashion, so double-cloth shawls never caught on. The process limited the design to a comparatively small repeating one, and the colours employed had to be few, to keep down the weight. The finished article, therefore, was not as beautiful or as artistic as the ordinary harness shawl. That probably contributed to its unpopularity.

A question that is often asked is " How long did it take to weave a shawl ? " The answer is a week, or a fortnight for a plaid. The questioner is usually surprised, however, to be told that before weaving could be begun, five months of work had been done in the processes of design and the setting-up of the web in the loom. The design processes, as any weaver would realise, were necessarily elaborate. The designer first drew a sketch of his idea in miniature, then parts in detail and colour. These drawings were traced on to oiled paper and coloured, and the sketches passed to draughtsmen who transferred the design to squared paper, and coloured it. The enlargement which this involved meant that the sheets of design paper for a plaid would cover the floor of a large room. The process might be compared with the similar one of carpet designing, but the work was very much finer, and demanded more time and skill. The design paper used for shawls to be woven on Jacquard looms had a peculiar ruling to represent the diagonal effect of the twill weave. This was another French idea which is now obsolete.

There must have been almost as many artists as poets in Paisley at one time- and history relates that once, when the toast of Paisley poets was proposed, every single guest rose to reply. There were several firms of public designers, and the more important manufacturers kept staffs of artists, in one case as many as twenty-six. Some idea of the amount of work turned out can be gauged from the design books of John Morgan and Son (now in Paisley Museum), which show 500 different designs for 1844 - 45 and mention five different artists. While the importance of the industry generally is attested by the setting-up in Paisley of a Government school of design. The work of English and French artists was also used, as is shown by the number of sketches in Paisley Museum bearing the stamps of designers in London and Paris.

The setting-up of the loom was also a complicated business. The tying up of the harness of a draw-loom originally occupied three people - one to " read the flower," that is the design from the squared paper, one to take it down, and a third to " lash the flower," tying the harness cords into the appropriate arrangement. When the Jacquard loom was used, the cards were cut by an operator who read the design line by line from the squared paper. The harness of the shawl looms, in order to execute such fine and elaborate designs, was fine and elaborate too. Unfortunately no example of such a harness has survived. Looms which once made shawls were later adapted to other uses, or destroyed.

The processes of making printed shawls did not differ from those employed in making other printed fabrics. At first wooden blocks were used, then blocks with the pattern lines inlaid with metal, and latterly metal rollers. The Paisley printing was notably excellent in registration, though it employed many colours and therefore numerous blocks, which were often of large size. It is notable too that all the work of designing, weaving, dyeing, block-cutting, printing, and finishing was performed in Paisley itself.

The two varieties of shawls we have discussed, though known as " Paisley," were not the only kinds made in Paisley. Queen Victoria's choice in 1842 included velvet, satin, and tartan shawls, as well as harness ones. Tartan had been woven before the Indian imitations were thought of, and tartan shawls and plaids were continuously made in Paisley up to 1941. From the year 1823, Paisley imitated the Chinese crepe embroidered shawls very successfully for at least twenty-five years. Chenille shawls were invented about the same time by one Andrew Buchanan. These shawls were reversible ; an arrangement to bring all the velvet to one side suggested the carpet patent which was the beginning of the great Templeton manufactures. Another variety was the Angola shawl which was a kind of blanket with a coloured pattern. It was not a great success, as gentlemen escorts objected to the number of fibres it shed ; but it remained popular for export, and its development, the " fur " shawl was the last variety to be woven in Paisley. It was made by the last two shawl manufacturers in the town, both of whom scrapped their looms in 1941. One of their looms was presented to the Museum, and the last Paisley shawl, albeit only a " fur " one, was woven there. The last " harness " shawl had been set up in 1886.

The industry is not likely to be revived. Costs nowadays would be prohibitive, and knowledge of the craft is already lost. It goes to join other arts and crafts, such as Ayrshire needlework, in oblivion. But the shawls are still there, and will be for many a day, a delight to their owners and an inspiration to designers and craftsmen all.









E.S. Harrison



One of a series of fascinating articles written over the decades  by Edward Harrison who ran Johnstons of Elgin for 46 years from 1920 - 1966.

Commencing with the first in November 1931, the essays were published anonymously by the National Association of Scottish Woollen Manufacturers.

All these essays - and a host of other articles - are freely available in our Archives to Members of the Scottish Tartans Authority.

Interested in joining? Just click here to see all the benefits.



© Scottish Tartans Authority
Scottish Tartans Authority (Scottish limited company no. 162386), c/o J & H Mitchell, 51 Atholl Road, Pitlochry, PH16 5BU
Scottish Charity Number SCO24310

Site By Radiator