I was a sixties girl. Paisley patterns were worn by hippies and Vogue readers alike.
In the 1960s, Western manufacturers adapted the pattern into double-knits, like this jacket. . .
. . . and created subtler prints based on Indian designs, like this light pink wool.
I owned several paisley dresses, with patterns ranging from ‘dark and subtle’ to ‘psychedelic and enormous.’
But I never made the connection between the pattern I called “paisley” and the Scottish cloth-manufacturing town of Paisley until this month. This was a good month for learning about paisley. I had been reading a book about Jane Austen, which included an illustration of a “paisley” shawl; then I read a magazine from 1917 which showed examples of clothing made out of old paisley shawls.
To me, it seemed like sacrilege to chop a huge, [already] 60-year old wool or cashmere shawl . . .
. . . into ugly 1917 clothing, but, of course, such fabric recycling is an old tradition. The Metropolitan Museum has examples of Victorian Paisley shawls converted into mid-Victorian bathrobes, and dolman jackets, 1920s coats, and rather chic 1920s suits.
Finding the History of Paisley Patterns and Paisley Shawls
I found two excellent articles online about the history of the paisley pattern (called “boteh” in India) as it was adopted and adapted for mass manufacture during the 1800s. Threads of History gives a marvellous illustrated history of the development of both the shawl and the Paisley/boteh pattern (click here.) In Victoriana, Meg Andrews also discusses the fashion history of paisley, with many different illustrations, and explains why this luxury item eventually went out of style and into attics. (click here.)
The Real Jane Austen and Her Shawl
I recently enjoyed reading The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, by Paula Byrne. This is not a conventional birth-to-death biography, but an exploration of Jane Austen’s world via several objects connected with her daily life: her portable writing desk, a silhouette of her family, a topaz necklace purchased for her by one of her sailor brothers, etc. Chapter Two uses an East Indian Shawl as a springboard into her family connections with India, trade, and a family scandal (Like her character, Emma, Austen knew a young woman born out of wedlock. In Austen’s case, it was a near relation whom she knew quite well.) You can read detailed and very informative reviews of The Real Jane Austen in The Telegraph (click here), or by [Dickens expert and actor] Simon Callow (click here.)
Paisley Shawls Recycled, 1917
Having just read Paula Byrne’s Austen book, I had paisley shawls on my mind when I found these ‘recycled’ paisley shawls in the Ladies’ Home Journal, 1917:
When the United States entered World War I, in 1917, women expected fabric shortages. Women’s magazines like Delineator and Ladies’ Home Journal, both in the business of selling sewing patterns, began to write about ways that new clothing could be made from materials on hand. Women had always utilized dresses from the attic, and their own family’s used clothing, for children’s clothes, quilts, etc. (A bodice from the 1850s or 1860s is still relatively easy to find; finding an 1860s bodice with its matching skirt is much harder, since the skirts contained several yards of easily re-useable fabric.) Wool and silk Paisley shawls were among the garments frequently remade into robes, dresses, handbags and 1920s suits and coats. (You can see the Metropolitan Museum’s collection of paisley shawls, and clothing made from shawls, by clicking here.)
More Creative Recycling, 1917
The Vintage Traveler has written about remade shawls and vintage clothing. Collectors of vintage clothing will probably cringe at this chiffon gown (pictured at right) converted into a couple of blouses:
But I give full marks for creativity to this handbag — made from a scrap of black velvet and a pair of old, long, white leather gloves with black stitching!