The History of the Paisley Symbol and Paisley Pattern

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Please note: Pics 1 & 3-11 in this article are very kindly provided by:

the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam)  https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en

Portable Antiquities Scheme (London)  https://finds.org.uk/

the Los Angeles County Museum of Art  http://www.lacma.org/

the Yale Center for British Art (Connecticut)   http://britishart.yale.edu/

In recent years these museums have decided to provide a free worldwide copyright policy for a selection of their archived images. The images are in chronological order. Click on each pic to enlarge.

 

 

Origins of the Paisley:

Ancient Babylon in present day Iraq is claimed to be one place of origin of the paisley form, possibly dating back to 1700BCE. Another opinion, expressed by Sam Willis in the 2016 BBC TV series The Silk Road, is that the symbol originated from the city of Yazd in Iran. In Yazd originates the weaving of the traditional fabric called a termeh, a cloth made of silk and wool which often included the paisley (boteh) form. Another common theory is that it originated in Persia 200-650 AD during the rule of the Sassanians who created an empire who's armies kept the Romans at bay for centuries.

This empire included what we know roughly as the Middle East, the Caucasus and central Asia. Their culture continues to influence Persian identity right up to the present day (pic 1 - a paisley ornament from Afghanistan C12th-14th). One of the nicknames for paisley shapes since the 18th century, especially by American quilt makers, was “Persian pickles”.

The symbol can be best described as a similar shape to a curving teardrop or a kidney. The symbol was called boteh (the Persian word for shrub or cluster of leaves) which is visually a combination of a spray of floral elements and a cypress tree. Centuries later the shape was called Buta almond or bud. The buta shape is the national symbol of Azerbaijan to this day, it symbolizes fire and is most commonly seen on their bright intricate woven carpets and rugs. The buta form in Azerbaijan is related to the Zoroastrian religion that dates back to the first millennium BC. The paisley shape could also be an adaptation of the yin-yang symbol used in ancient Chinese medicine and philosophy.

Many different cultures have used the paisley symbol and consider it to represent many objects including a cashew fruit, a mango or a sprouting date palm, an Indian symbol of fertility. The symbol’s shape varies dramatically in different countries from an Indian pine-cone to a Russian cucumber. 

Paisleys can possibly also be traced back to Celtic tradition. Before the Roman empire’s influence prevailed in Britain, Celtic patterns were used on many highly-decorated metal objects. The Desborough Mirror (pic 2), discovered at an archaeological excavation in Northamptonshire in 1908, was made in the Iron Age period in Britain around 50BC to AD50. I photographed the mirror at a visit to the British Museum, London in April 2015. The bronze mirror’s complex swirling engraved symbols, quite similar to paisley forms, can also be seen in their online collection listing. Another example of Celtic artistic creativity is the Wandsworth Shield. This Iron Age bronze shield which was made in Britain around 200BC has a curvilinear decoration of 2 birds with feathers which resemble paisley shapes. This style of design is called La Tène style and an excellent example which definitely resembles 1960's paisley patterns is an enamel pan from 150AD. The bronze pan (pic 3) is called the Staffordshire Moorlands Pan and is Romano-British. The names of four forts on Hadrian's Wall are inscribed along the top of the pan. The paisley pattern is beautifully coloured in shades of red, yellow and shades of blue.

The paisley pattern evolved mainly in The Kingdom of Kashmir. During Mughal Emperor Akbar's reign (1556–1605), shawl-weaving production increased dramatically. It’s weavers absorbing influences coming across the borders from nearby China, Middle East and India. Woven paisley shawls were mainly worn by men for ceremonies. These early shawls did not display the paisley shape as we know it today but a curving flower with leaves and a stem, the roots of which have striking similarities to Chinese calligraphy. The way in which symbols from different cultures appear in the development of the paisley pattern show how weavers translated artistic influences from imported ceramics, documents, fabrics into their own designs.

 

The East India Company imported paisley shawls (adapted from the Persian word shal) from Kashmir and Persia to Europe in large quantities from around 1800. The designs were specifically tailored to cater for each regions particular tastes. In Europe the shawls were worn mainly by women not men. The designs might depict exotic scenes of people on elephants riding past palm trees. For the Middle Eastern customers, the curved geometric paisley shape as we know it today was widely used. This was partly due to the Islamic preference not to depict recognizable natural objects.

European customers gradually preferred more complicated patterns on their shawls. Therefore in Kashmir, to speed up the manufacturing process, the ‘patchwork shawl' was invented. Woven pieces of fabric from several looms were joined together to make one shawl.

 

The French Connection:

Joseph Marie Jacquard introduced the punch card system to looms in Lyon in 1804, resulting in the first programmable loom. This and other advances in technology during the C19th slowly reduced the high levels of child labour in the textile industries because machinery became larger and more complicated so was unsuitable for children to operate. Prior to the jacquard loom, a child would sit on top of each loom raising and lowering the heddles. His invention made weaving 25 times faster with obviously dramatic increases in paisley shawl output.

In 1805, Napoleon and Empress Josephine, his first wife, visited Lyon and viewed Jacquard’s new loom and granted the patent resulting in Jacquard receiving a royalty for each loom bought. 

Joséphine, the first wife of Napoleon I, reputedly owned hundreds of cashmere shawls. These Indian and Pakistani shawls were brought back from Napoleon's campaigns in countries such as Egypt at the beginning of the c.19th. There are many portraits of Josephine wearing shawls similar in style and colour to pic.7 which were the height of fashion and luxury. The creamy ecru colour is the natural colour of the goat's fleece. Pic.8 is an example of a beautifully designed and coloured shawl woven in Lyon between 1850-1870.

 

British shawl production:

British production of woven shawls began in 1790 in Norwich, England but to a greater extent in 1805 in the small town of Paisley, Scotland. Roughly equal quantities of imported Kashmiri and home-produced British shawls were bought in Britain in the mid C19th. The former retained their popularity despite their much higher prices. The main reason being that cashmere is actually hair from a goat and these fine hairs are soft and provide excellent insulation. Cashmere was therefore preferred to sheep's wool which was regarded as much less luxurious.  Also the superior Kashmiri looms produced fully reversible fabric with many more colours. Initially the British shawls were only 2-colour, usually indigo and madder. At it’s peak from c.1850 -1860 the town of Paisley employed 6,000 weavers. 

 

The name "Paisley":

Due to the huge scale of shawl production in Paisley, Scotland, the pattern was given the name 'paisley'. The name 'paisley' is not an international name for the pattern, it is called palme in France, bota in Netherlands, bootar in India and peizuli in Japan. 

The Scottish town was named Paisley as far back as the 7th century. The first church was built on the abbey site in 7th century. An ancient Celtic language was spoken in Britain at this time. ‘Paisley’ derives from the word Passeleg which means 'basilica' indicating a major church. The church was given abbey status in 1245. Parts of the current abbey date back to 1163. William Wallace, the Scottish knight and national hero of Scottish independence was educated in the abbey. The expansion of the textile industry in the town dates back to the 17th century and is evident with street names which include the words thread, silk, shuttle and cotton. Paisley is part of Renfrewshire, 1 of 32 Scottish councils; it uses the paisley symbol as it's official logo.

 

Popularity:

In Britain in the C19th the paisley shawl was the ‘must-have’ accessory of its day, a status symbol worn for important occasions and recorded in numerous portrait paintings. Until photography had become more available in the late 19th century, paintings recorded fashion trends. These paintings are now a valuable resource for mapping stages in the development of paisley patterns and variations in shawl shapes and sizes. Ford Maddox Brown's painting (pic.10) from 1860 shows that even a poor girl on the street selling flowers is wearing the fashion of the day, possibly a gift from a sympathetic passer-by on a cold day. William Holman Hunt's painting The Awakening Conscience (1853 - The Tate Britain, London) shows the woman wearing a red paisley shawl draped around her middle and tied at the front, probably brought back by the man from an overseas trip.

Paisley patterns, intricate dynamic interlocking shapes in exciting colour combinations appealed to a wide market. Wool and silk blended yarns were used in Britain, as Tibetan goat hair down was not readily available. A rather unsuccessful attempt was made to rear cashmere goats in Essex, England in 1818. A small herd bred from two imported goats from Kazakhstan only produced very small amounts of the underfleece as the British weather wasn't cold enough. The rearing was then abandoned.

 

Design Copyright:

Paisley designs in Britain were one of the first examples of copyright protection in the creative fields. Copyrights for paisley designs date back to the 1840’s.

 

Paisley Decline and Diversification:

Developments in printing technology in Europe in C19th enabled factories to mass-produce printed paisley fabrics and cater for the worldwide demand. This brought about the decline in the demand for woven shawls and by 1860 many of the weavers had emigrated to Australia and Canada due to poverty.By the late C19th paisley designs had acquired wider uses appearing in prints and embroideries but this did not stop the paisley shawl’s decline in popularity in conjunction with a famine in Kashmir in the 1880’s. The dolman (pic.11) is a fine example of C19th recycling; the large woven shawls, no longer in fashion by 1880, were adapted as jackets, dolmans and capes. The weavers, especially in Paisley, had to listen to merchants who would advise them on possible new markets. An example of this was supplying paisley ponchos for the South America market.

The paisley pattern designs used for the shawls continued to be used as examples of technical visual perfection. Detailed hand-drawn colour plans on paper from 1840's and 1850's were used as visual aids to assist the teaching of design students on a variety of courses at Glasgow School of Art from 1920's to late 1940's.

Paisley patterns were still worn in the first half of the 20th century but not as a mainstream trend. A painting from 1918 of artist Vanessa Bell in The National Portrait Gallery by Duncan Grant (1885 – 1978) shows her wearing a red paisley pattern dress. Noel Coward was often photographed wearing a paisley smoking jacket or dressing gown, very similar to those worn by the stylish detective Sherlock Holmes. Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra were also famous for sporting silk smoking jackets with bold paisley prints when they performed in Las Vegas or attended lavish parties. Frank Sinatra wore paisley ties, including bow ties, frequently in the 1930's and 1940's. Images of paisley shawls continued to be used in popular culture. Pic 13 shows a book cover from 1939.

 

The Big Comeback:

Not until the late 1960’s did paisleys return to their former glory in the fashion world. The new attraction to exotic musical and artistic influences catapulted them back into the boutiques, magazines and adorned the hippest pop icons of the day, most noticeably The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Kinks, The Who and The Small Faces. Carnaby Street was the place to shop for the latest paisley fashions. John Stephen, a talented gay Glaswegian, known as The King of Carnaby Street, was the leading designer/tailor for menswear in London in the 60’s. He was one of the main designers contributing to The Peacock Revolution, a flamboyant, vivid, menswear fashion trend that enabled men to wear bold patterns including flashy spirited paisley prints. He dressed the leading rock stars of the day in his 15 different boutiques on Carnaby Street with shop names like Domino Male and Male West One. The Beatles in 1968 began to regularly visit India and embrace its philosophy, music and of course paisley fabrics. The paisley design was commonly associated with rebellion; it was a statement of non-conformity, a welcome alternative to the preceding sober mod fashion trends. It was the perfect print for the androgynous hedonistic counterculture of the hippies. The hippie look is strongly linked to the psychedelic "Summer of Love" when 100,000 people came together in Haight-Ashbury, a district of San Francisco, California to share their common beliefs such as rejecting consumerist values and encouraging pacifism. Paisley patterns and other fabrics from around the world helped encourage a spirit of multiculturalism and, for the wearer, were visual statements of this principle.

Since the 1960’s the paisley has bounced back onto the catwalks and into the high streets every few years. At the other end of the spectrum it became a sign of affiliation in gang culture. The bandana, named after the Hindi term “to tie”, was originally a makeshift dust-mask for cowboys and a way of disguising their faces until it was adopted by the gangs of Los Angeles in the late 60’s and then used by rock stars and their fans ever since.

The paisley pattern has had many other musical connections. In 1971 Dory Previn, wife of Andre Previn, released the song The Lady with the Braid. Her lyrics mention paisley in the following line "you'll find an extra towel on the rack on the paisley patterned papered wall". In 1982 the British new wave band Television Personalities released the album 'They Could Have Been Bigger Than The Beatles' which includes the song 'The Boy In The Paisley Shirt' about a groovy fella who should be let out of his groovy cellar. It amusingly mocks late 60's fashions and namechecks Kathy McGowan and Mary Quant. In 1997 they released the live album 'Paisley Shirts & Mini Skirts'. Also in 1982, 5,000 miles away on America's west coast, a new psychedelic genre was developing called the Paisley Underground. This neo-psychedelic movement included the bands: The Bangles, The Dream Syndicate, Green on Red, The Long Ryders and The Three O'Clock to name a few. This movement inspired pop icon Prince to convey a strong psychedelic sound on his 1985 album 'Around the World in a Day'. The first single on the album 'Paisley Park' came in an organic interlocking paisley printed record sleeve with paisley typeface. He also named his record label and recording studios, Paisley Park Records and Paisley Park Studios giving his royal seal of approval to the paisley pattern. Incidentally, in 1984 he wrote 'Manic Monday' for the Bangles, and signed the Three O'Clock to Paisley Park Records. With song titles such as 'Joy in Repetition', Prince easily appeals to textile designers generally. In the 1991 hit record "Get Off" by Prince, he sings the lyric "Here we are in my paisley crib".

After his untimely death on 21st April 2016, Alona Elkayam in The Huffington Post in her article titled Paisley: A Pattern Made For A Prince, she said in tribute "Prince, like the paisley, your music and your name will transcend generations and cultures. Thank you"

 

Florence Welch, singer of the band Florence and the Machine said in 2011 "I must get a couple of shirts made from the paisley design - I love paisley". Stella McCartney and Kenzo must have heard her plea. Florence became a paisley style icon in 2012 wearing gorgeous paisley suits and dresses by these two premier designers. Her collection for Liberty Art Fabrics called 'Grace' was a reinterpretation of vintage paisleys from the Liberty-print archives.

 

2010's and The Future:

The universal popularity of the paisley print means new designs receive prime positioning in magazines, websites and shop windows. One garish design which received mass media coverage around the world appeared at the 2010 Winter Olympics. The Azerbaijan team sported modern graphic colourful paisley trousers, which gave the small team (only 2 competitors) great exposure at the opening ceremony.

The tradition of the paisley shawl in British culture is referenced in works by contemporary artists such as the Turner Prize-winning potter Grayson Perry as can be seen in pic 14.

In 2009 the highly respected clothing label Pretty Green was launched with Liam Gallagher at it's helm as founder and designer. It was named 'Menswear Brand of the Year' at the Drapers Fashion Awards in 2010. Exclusive paisley prints are constantly present in the collections as shirts, polos or shoes with signature paisley inner liners.

The Italian fashion house Etro (Milan) continue to produce undoubtedly the most beautiful paisley fashion prints in the world every season. Girolamo Etro created the Etro brand in 1968 in Milan. He was a famous collector of art, from ancient Roman sculptures to 20th century painters such as Giorgio de Chirico. He amassed a collection of 150 Kashmir paisley shawls dating from 1810 to 1880. He introduced the paisley pattern into the Etro fabric collections in the early 1980s. They were so successful that the label is now the brand most closely associated with the paisley pattern. Pic 15 is a photo of colourful paisley-patterned print swatches, which I took at the Missoni Art Colour exhibition at The Fashion and Textile Museum London in 2016. The swatches were from the collection of the famous Italian fashion house Missoni. Thank you to the museum for allowing me to take photographs.

Closer to home, Liberty of London continuously reinvent the paisley print as can be seen from the beautiful silk scarf in pic16. In recent years, catwalk collections from many major designers including Balenciaga, Jill Sander, Jonathan Saunders and Stella McCartney have all featured exciting new takes on the paisley. The Massimo Dutti spring/summer 2014 collection featured an array of paisleys in blue shades including engineered scarf print garments. Actress Kate Hudson was featured on the front page of InStyle magazine in July 2014 wearing a stylish red and pale blue paisley bikini. Lauren Laverne’s feature in The Observer in May 2014 entitled “Eye-popping Paisley” highlighted the importance of the paisley print "essential to achieve the boho look or festival chic, the paisley would be the dominant statement print through summer and autumn but mostly looking ahead to the autumn and winter 2014 collections".

2014 saw the launch of Paisley Power, the brand created by UK textile designer Patrick Moriarty. Patrick creates modern interpretations of the paisley pattern. His fabric print designs are regularly used to make top-selling fashion garments and textile-based home-ware items manufactured by major international retailers. His most popular and recognized design is his paisley rat print (see pic).

In February 2015 Rebecca Gonzales’ double-page feature in The Independent newspaper, stresses the importance of Persian paisleys in the latest Seventies revival. Entitled “Get Your Groove On”, the article says the seventies are back and provide perennial inspiration for summer collections. 2015 saw the return of the paisley poncho for men and women. Paisley nightwear was a bestseller with the Mirror newspaper announcing "M&S (Marks and Spencer) rapidly sold out of pure cotton paisley patterned pajamas".

In 2016 several leading fashion houses have included paisley patterns in their spring summer collections. These include Gucci, Isabel Marant and Saint Laurent.

In 2016, British fashion designer Alexa Chung collaborated with Marks and Spencer to produce a collection. She revived several vintage pieces from the M&S archive, including a 1950's "Eliza" paisley mini-dress, which received favorable coverage in the Daily Telegraph article on 19th February 2016 .

In 2017 Pringle of Scotland, the luxury knitwear brand, in collaboration with Paisley Museum will be using archive paisley patterns in their autumn/winter 2017 collection. The brand had previously used paisley patterns in the 1960's so it is a welcome return for paisleys to feature in the Pringle knitwear range. You can read more about this collaboration in the article titled Paisley Pattern ‘on trend’ with Pringle on the Paisley 2021 website.

To accompany our love of paisley fashion, we can surround ourselves in paisley furnishing fabrics, wallpapers, screensavers and iPhone cases. They all prove that this organic symbol whether flower, tree or sprouting seed is so adaptable it will continue to grow in any direction a designer desires for decades to come. Whilst I'm on the subject of growing, there is even a hosta plant called "Lakeside Paisley Print" bred by Mary Chastain in the 1990s. She is a horticulturist who lives near the shore of Lake Chickamauga in eastern Tennessee. Her hosta has leaves that resemble paisley forms with cream feather markings in the centre of paisley shaped wavy edged leaves.

 

Preservation for Future Generations:

In 2015 a project began at the Paisley Museum, Scotland, to digitally record it's entire collection of 1200 paisley shawls, most of which are approximately 200 years old. It is one of the largest paisley shawl collections in the world and is officially listed as a Recognized Collection of National Significance to Scotland. Each shawl will be carefully photographed and scanned. The museum are also making digital copies of all of it's pattern books, so that there will be a detailed reference facility of thousands of historic paisley patterns. This is one of many projects at the museum where a high priority is conservation of many aspects of its fascinating paisley heritage. The project was completed in June 2016.

In September 2016 the curator of textiles at Paisley Museum, Dan Coughlan, was featured in the Independent newspaper as part of the town's PaisleyMake Festival of Creativity and Design. This 4-day event was a chance for designers and crafts practitioners to celebrate and discover Paisley’s textile heritage. Speakers included representatives from local businesses in the fashion and textile industry. Dan Coughlan gave a talk about the museum's historic paisley pattern collection.

A new digital art project is now on view at Paisley Museum from 2nd November 2016 until 15th January 2017. The project will create 7.3 billion paisley patterns. That's definitely enough to put me out of business! This huge number of patterns reflects the enormous quantity of paisley patterns created in the town of Paisley in the past. Obviously the town's 19th and 20th century weavers did not create billions of patterns but they did create more than any other town or city in the world over a 100-year period. Admittedly some of the designs woven in Paisley town were copies of designs created by the native weavers of Kashmir but many designs were created in Scotland by Scottish designers. The software used to create the new digital paisley patterns enables the images to be viewed on a high definition screen which has been mounted on a replica of a 19th century weaving loom. The project is described as "transforming the world famous Paisley pattern for the digital age."

the future's bright and the future's paisley!

Congratulations to Paisley, Scotland for reaching the final shortlist in the bid for the UK City of Culture 2021. The BBC described Paisley as follows "this Renfrewshire town, population 76,000, is perhaps most famous for the Paisley print - the intricate, colourful designs that were inspired by Kashmiri patterns in the 18th Century and popularised in the psychedelic 1960s." Unfortunately Paisley was not chosen as the winning city; Coventry was the winner.

Japanese Fashion designer Yoshio Kubo, graduate of Philadelphia university in 2000, has used bandanas and paisley prints in an exciting way in his Fall / Winter 2017-18 menswear collection.

In May 2018 pop singer Miley Cyrus collaborated with iconic shoe brand Converse to launch a new range of garments and trainers with paisley patterns. The fashion & footwear collection is described as vegan as she is a passionate animal rights activist, which means the collection was manufactured without animal cruelty.

On 23rd May 2018 Charlie Gowans-Eglinton, Senior fashion editor of The Telegraph, UK Newspaper, has published an article titled "Fed up with florals? This season's paisleys pack a print punch". It confirms the importance of paisley prints in fashion in 2018. Included in the article is a concise history of the paisley pattern emphasizing it's cool cultural connections through the centuries.

The Alexander McQueen Fall 2018 menswear collection has some innovative new interpretations of the paisley symbol and paisley pattern. 

If you have the opportunity to visit Milan, Italy make sure you visit "Etro: Generation Paisley". The exhibition is at the Mudec Museum. The Etro fashion family are experts at creating beautiful paisley fashion collections every year. This exhibition has been curated by the family and Judith Clark of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Luke Leitch, Vogue journalist wrote in his article dated September 24, 2018 "The Etro-defining shift to paisley, an ancient central Asian pattern based on the seed of the date palm, happened in the ’80s". (The exhibition has) "rooms dedicated to Etro’s excellent campaigns over the years" and "There is also an awesome digital installation in which visitors can look further and further into the apparently infinite complexity of Etro’s patterns". Highly recommended!

For contemporary paisley-pattern fabric products designed by Patrick Moriarty, take a look at his Etsy store. A selection of his textile designs are available to buy as lengths of fabric by the yard or metre in his Spoonflower store.

Patrick Moriarty

Southend-on-Sea, Essex, UK

phone: +44(0)7910351332

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Cashmere Scarf, Lyon, c.1850-1870

Rectangular woven scarf with entwining elongated mirrored paisleys with multicolored multiple outlines. Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam) Archive