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Home > Newsletters > November 2004

November 2004

Common Question:

At the two shows I vended at this past month, one of the textiles that received the most attention, were the wool tapestry like pieces I had draped or dramatically displayed. What are they? What are they used for today? These stunning woven textiles are Victorian Paisley Shawls. Sometimes measuring 5'x10', they were used by Victorian Ladies as coats in the winter to cover their large dresses. Today, they drape pianos and banisters, and grace large dining room tables. There is nothing wrong with using them as intended, as a Shawl. And I have seen Paisleys in poor condition cut up and used as pillows, purses and bags, upholstered foot stools, and recently, a friend said she was going to turn one into a Chanel Suit!

Feature Article: "Victorian Paisley Shawls"

Although these masterpieces were being created well before the Victorian Era, we call them Victorian Paisleys because that is when they hit their peak of popularity.

The original Paisley Shawls originated from Kashmir, India as early as the 1500s. They were made from Tibetan goat wool, which was softer than sheep's wool, and it is said the water in Kashmir was the reason why the dyed colors were so vibrant. Their motifs held symbolic and often mystic meanings, for example, fertility. Designs could distinguish its origin.

In 1774, Warren Hasting, the first Governor-General of India, and from Britain, ordered some of the shawls for his wife. He started a trend. Soon other officials were ordering shawls for their wives. By 1777, Kashmir Shawls were the fashion rage in England. France followed, having shawls sent home by Napoleon's army from 1798-1801.

These shawls were a luxury, affordable by only the very wealthy. The hand made technique called "twill tapestry" was extensively studied. Twill tapestry involved weaving the weft thread back and forth around the warp thread only where the color was needed for the pattern. When the weft thread was turned, it was interlocked with a different colored thread from a nearby motif or the background. This created a ridge around the design.

To mass produce the shawls, shuttle weaving was developed. The weft thread was carried along the entire width of the piece, only showing on the front where the design called for it. Sometimes, the threads were cut.
Scotland, at the same time, from which the term 'Paisley' is derived from, was also researching new techniques. They developed a device called a 'ten-box lay", and was able to reproduce copies of the Kashmiri exactly. Competition was fierce between Scotland, France, England, and soon India. By the 1840s, Scotland had mastered the weaving to the point that even the Kashmiris were imitating them.

They started to decline in popularity during the 1870s for a number of reasons: the Franco-Prussian War caused Kashmiri to stop exporting them, Bustle Dresses came into fashion, and the shawls did not 'sit' right on them, and printed shawls and woven jacquard shawls could be made so cheaply, it competed with the loomed shawls. Although loomed shawls were still being created up until the 1900s.

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