French Tadpoles and Persian Pickles

The life of the world’s most democratic print, from Kashmiri sultans to the Bloods and the Crips.

Illustration by Oliver Munday.

Illustration by Oliver Munday

Excerpted from Patternalia: An Unconventional History of Polka Dots, Stripes, Plaid, Camouflage, & Other Graphic Patterns by Jude Stewart. Out now from Bloomsbury.

What form of life is paisley, exactly? The symbol sprang up millennia ago, somewhere between present-day Iran and the Kashmiri region straddling the Indian-Pakistani border. Although it was originally called buta or boteh, meaning “flower,” in paisley people have seen resemblances to a lotus, a mango, a leech, a yin and yang, a dragon, and a cypress pine. Ancient Babylonians likened it to an uncurling date palm shoot. Providing them with food, wine, wood, paper, hatch, and string—all of life’s necessities—date palms symbolized prosperity and plenty. Paisley began its life as the privilege of cosseted, powerful men.


Kashmiri shawls sprang up as early as the 11th century but found their first promoter in Zain-ul-Abidin, who ruled Kashmir from 1459 to 1470 and encouraged weavers from Persia and Central Asia to move to his kingdom. Their next champion was Akbar (reigned 1556–1605), who made the shawls central to the Kashmiri practice of khil’at, “robes of honor” ceremonially exchanged in political and religious contexts to establish a clear pecking order. (Being on the receiving end made one submissive and therefore inferior to the giver—not awesome, although scoring the sumptuous textiles made for luxurious compensation.) Shawls given as khil’at were decorated with all sorts of patterns, although some scholars wonder if the paisley motif came to predominate because it resembled jigha, a crown insignia jewel used to pin a feather to a courtier’s turban. (Gradually the jigha elongated, more and more resembling the feather it anchored. So, yet another reading: Paisley is a feather.)


As with so many other luxury goods, there was nothing efficient about making a Kashmiri shawl. Its wool came 
from a Central Asian species of goat, Capra hircus in Latin
or shahtoosh in indigenous terms. These animals wandered into the high Himalayas, where the bitter cold made their underbellies sprout a dense, ultrafine wool. The goats shed this pashmina, as this wool was called, in the summer by rubbing themselves against rocks and bushes; textile workers then literally climbed the Himalayas, collected the fluff by hand, and spun it into thread.

Weavers made shawls from the thread using a laborious twill-tapestry technique, which involved weaving the horizontal weft threads around the vertical warp threads only where that color is required in the pattern. (A “color caller” fed the weaver instructions as he progressed.) Individual sections were then carefully and invisibly joined together into a larger shawl. Making a complex shawl could eat up several years of a Kashmiri weaver’s life.


Shawls started infiltrating Europe in the late 18th century, when Kashmiri princes began including British East India Co. officers in their ritual shawl-giving. The English officers sent the shawls home to their sweethearts, who clamored for more. Fresh from conquering Egypt and next sniffing around India, many of Napoleon’s officers found themselves stationed near Kashmir and similarly tempted by the shawls. Napoleon’s wife Joséphine began stockpiling paisleys, and by the early 1800s, European desire for paisley had intensified into frenzy.


Textile manufacturers noted paisley’s ka-ching factor, and the race was on to produce more shawls. Importing finished shawls from Kashmir didn’t come close to meeting European demand, so capitalists scrambled to produce
their own. Norwich, England, and Edinburgh, Scotland, factories thrummed to life, cranking out worthy imitations, although no amount of tinkering with silk, cotton, and wool blends could compete with the original pashmina wool for softness. A Kashmiri monopoly made the raw material impractical to import, so textile manufacturers shifted their focus to gaining other advantages: accelerating production time, lowering manufacturing costs (and retail price), and blitzing consumers with more dazzlingly complex designs.


The next phase of paisley’s evolution reads like any technology race, a deadly serious battle for market share wreathed in bobbing exotic boteh. The town of Paisley, Scotland, eclipsed Norwich and Edinburgh in shawl production in the early 19th century, thanks to pattern piracy, fast-evolving labor structures, and early adoption of the Jacquard loom. (The latter device automated the manipulation of weft and warp threads necessary to produce complex patterns. It was a total game-changer in textile production.)

Paisley-the-Town’s dominance in shawl production explains how the boteh pattern got renamed “paisley” throughout the Western world. (Europeans also used
 the word paisley interchangeably with shawl—as in, “Gertrude, your paisley is crooked.”) The pattern acquired other nicknames and associations in its migration westward: The French called it at one point “tadpole,” the Viennese, “little onion.” Quilters gave the pattern their own tender nicknames: “Persian pickles” from the Americans, “Welsh pears” from the Welsh.


Patent wars erupted to protect newfangled designs and the know-how necessary to weave them. Paisley patterns were coveted intellectual property, not unlike computer programs today. Unsurprisingly, legal scuffles only protected European designs; those swiped from the Kashmiris were waved off as fair use.

Shawls morphed as production technology evolved—so much so, in fact, that paisley stayed fashionable in one form or another for a century. Woven with more primitive looms, early “imitation” shawls were relatively sober: plain or sprigged at the center and patterned only along the borders. As textile technology sped up, richer medallions of paisleys were worked into the shawls’ centers, then corners, and finally consumed the entire shawl.

The boteh motif deepened in complexity, too. It started as a naturalistic sprig of flowers that grew denser over
the years and later acquired a vase. Gradually the motif abstracted into a teardrop shape, slenderized as its Clark Kent–like top curl became exaggerated and larger. The flora and fauna bursting from paisleys diversified, too, welcoming Western blooms like carnations, dahlias, and irises as well as snakes, insects, salamanders, and parrots.


Paisleys popped up as outerwear (worn by women and men on open-air carriage rides) and in bridal trousseaux as “kirking shawls” worn by brides in their first outing
to church (“kirk”) after the wedding. Fresh young things who’d worn paisley as girls matured into mothers, then grandmothers whose female offspring, several generations deep, wore paisley insistently in their own way. When printed (rather than woven) patterned shawls hit the European market in the 1850s and ’60s, working-class women could afford “paisleys,” too. For a brief, shining moment, all the women in a European household—from the lady down to the scullery maids—draped themselves in paisley.


The spell of paisley finally broke in the 1870s. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 delivered the first blow: The French lost, leaving the country impoverished and depriving the Kashmiri weavers of their biggest export customer. A famine in 1877 decimated the Indian weavers, too. But paisley’s popularity ultimately ended thanks
to inexorable swings in fashion. In the book The Paisley Pattern, authors Valerie Reilly and Frank Ames describe the paisley’s demise: “The beginning of the end for the shawl fashion was seen by 1865, when the crinoline skirt began to flatten at the front and bunch up at the back as a prelude to the bustle.” As the Telegraph dryly noted in 2007, “After a century of adapting the shawl to fashion needs, there was simply no way around the fact that wearing one over your bustle both destroyed the point of having it and made you look like Quasimodo.” The century of paisley was over.


But paisley re-emerged in spurts: Around 1904, Norwegian peasant girls
 and Spanish ladies still favored paisleys as church wear.
 Opening its doors in 1875, iconic department store Liberty
 of London first specialized in exotica from the Far East, but
 it later diversified into its signature “Liberty prints”
 fabrics for clothing and furniture, many of which include
 paisley motifs. Toward the end of paisley’s heyday, it had
 also snuck onto smaller, luxurious items for men: smoking 
jackets, silk handkerchiefs, neckties, and cravats. By wearing
 a slightly excessive amount of paisley, gay men discreetly signaled their status to one another.

Among the many inexpensive printed cottons produced at the turn of the 20th century was the bandanna, dotted or paisley-printed against a red or blue background. (The name comes from the Hindi word bandhnu, meaning both “tie-dying” and tying generally.) Cheap, paisley-printed bandannas sprouted around the necks of American cowboys, the sweat-soaked foreheads of farmworkers, and over the noses of wilderness firefighters. Manifest destiny meant America was teeming with pioneers, a market eager to buy rugged work wear like canvas denim pants and cotton paisley kerchiefs. Printed on a new, rough-and-ready canvas, paisley became a daily comfort of frontier men in the New World.

Paisley also exploded back into vogue in the 1960s. Psychedelically detailed, paisley fed into hippies’ fascination with all things Indian. (John Lennon had his Rolls-Royce painted paisley after the Beatles visited India, and the band’s embrace of everything Eastern boosted paisley’s profile considerably.) Fey, unabashedly lush, rich on its own uncompromising terms, paisley’s uncoolness—its original fans were by then great-grandmothers—made the pattern ripe for reappropriation.

Remorselessly, paisley conquered still other social groups. Cruising gay men in 1970s-era San Francisco recalled their 19th-century brethren in using paisley as a signal. They invented “handkerchief code,” communicating their sexual proclivities by stuffing color-coded paisley bandannas into their back pockets. The rainbow of paisleys matches the rainbow of human desires, up to the awe of orange (few sexual limits). In the 1980s gang wars, specific colors took on very different meanings for a different demographic: blue-bandannaed Crips faced off against their rivals, red-bandanna-wearing Bloods. As if to complete the spectrum of oddball paisley-adherents, the Boy Scouts adopted tan-and-blue bandannas to signal troop affiliation, too.

The circle of paisley’s irony is now complete. A pattern of exclusive royal privilege in the East becomes the pattern of Western capitalist longing. It trickles down on humbler fabrics to working men, gay men, gang members, and Boy Scouts. It signifies free love and forbidden love, belonging and exclusion—a seemingly impossible range of human experience.

Excerpted from Patternalia: An Unconventional History of Polka Dots, Stripes, Plaid, Camouflage, & Other Graphic Patterns by Jude Stewart. Copyright 2015 Jude Stewart. Reprinted with permission of Bloomsbury.