Kashmir and Paisley Shawls – An Interwoven History





Shawl weaving is known to have been practised in Kashmir (and other Indian states) from at least the 11th century.  The Persian word “shal”, from which the English word “shawl” is derived, originally described a class of woven fabric created from the highest quality of fine wool, a distinguishing feature of Kashmir shawls that has lasted over the centuries and for which they are still renowned today.   

The Design

The iconic tear-drop motif, or boteh (a flower in Hindu), which now characterises the Kashmir shawl, came to be the dominant design element from about the 17th century.  It started as a simple drooping flower complete with roots, but by the late 19th century had become a complex of elongated stylised swirls. 

‘The Kashmir Shawl’, John Irwin, Victoria and Albert Museum,1973

The Fleece

Originally, the fleece of the pashmina goat was used because of its outstanding quality and softness – particularly that of Kashmir’s wild mountain goats. The extreme fineness was attributed to the great heights at which the animals wintered, and it could be collected from rocks and shrubs against which the animals rubbed themselves in the spring.  Less preferred, but more accessible, was fleece from domesticated pashmina goats which provided the bulk of the raw material for Kashmir looms – supplies came from western Tibet and the nomadic tribes of Kyrgyzstan. Similar fleeces were derived from wild Himalayan mountain sheep – even, sometimes, from Tibetan shepherds’ dogs, who, it was claimed, grew the same fleece. 

Sash fragment, late 18th century, made in Kashmir with goat fleece, 2/2 double-interlocked twill tapestry; Design from a Shawl-weaver’s pattern book, Kashmir in 1881, Victoria and Albert Museum; Tibetan shepherd and his dog


In the second half of the 1800’s, the demand for pashmina fleece outgrew the supply, and soon adulterated wools began to be used. The standard of the wool fell, undoubtedly a contributor to the decline of the shawl trade in the 1870s.


Kashmir Weaving Techniques

The production of each shawl – the sourcing, cleaning and spinning of the fleece, the fine and laborious embroidery and hand weaving – took at least three people over a year to complete, making each shawl very valuable. The degree of fineness of the shawl was accepted as a mark of nobility, and so, as the shawl was then worn essentially by men, they were often offered as gifts to royalty, princes and noblemen. 

The finest shawls of the modern era are still synonymous with the name of Kashmir, but the origins of the Kashmir shawl are obscure. According to legend, in the 15th century Zain-ul-’Abidin, the eighth sultan of Kashmir, is said to have brought in weavers from nearby Turkistan who were using a technique found in Persia and Central Asia.  Textile historians have labelled this technique the “twill-tapestry technique” because of its similarity to traditional European tapestry weaving.  Using this technique, the wefts of the patterned part of the fabric were inserted by means of wooden spools without the use of a shuttle.  Weft threads alone formed the pattern; these did not run the full width of the cloth, being woven back and forth round the warp thread only where each particular colour is needed.  A significant difference was, however, that the loom was horizontal instead of vertical. 

Over time, the twill-tapestry technique for making shawls proved too slow and laborious – an intricate design could take over eighteen months to produce. In the early nineteenth century, a new practice was introduced of dividing the work of a single shawl among two or more looms – sometimes up to eight looms engaged in the production of a single shawl – the completed pieces being joined together by a needleworker, the joins being executed with such subtlety and fineness that it is often impossible to detect them with a naked eye. More techniques were to follow as demand grew – notably, the simpler process of the amli or needle-worked (embroidered) shawl which was quicker and required less skill. A cloth intended to serve as the “ground” of an amli was first placed on a plank and rubbed with a piece of highly-polished agate or cornelian, until perfectly smooth. A design was then transferred from paper to the cloth by pouncing with coloured powder or charcoal, the pattern could then be hand embroidered. This resulted in a poorer quality shawl, as the transfer of the pattern and the stitching quality were inferior.

The Demand for Kashmir Shawls

Kashmir shawls were first worn in fashionable circles in the West in the second half of the 1700’s, and by 1800 the shawl trade between Kashmir and the West was well established. The appearance of Western agents in Kashmir added new colour to this already cosmopolitan city. “At this city”, wrote traveller Moorcroft from Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital, in 1822, “I find merchants from Gela and from other cities of Chinese Turkestan, from Uzbek, Tartary, from Kabul, from Persia, from Turkey, and from the provinces of British India engaged in purchasing and in waiting for the getting up of shawl goods differing as to quality and pattern in conformity to the taste of the markets for which they are intended in a degree probably not suspected in Europe.” The popularity of the Kashmir shawl in Europe probably owed much to romantic notions of the mystery of the East.

Above Left: Detail of reverse side of a foldover shawl. Courtesy of the Historic Costume and Textiles Collection, Colorado State University. Photo by Joe Coca.
Above Middle: A mid-nineteenth-century Jacquard woven shawl. Courtesy of the Historic Costume and Textiles Collection, Colorado State University. Photo by Joe Coca.


Between 1850 and 1860, the number of shawls from the East being exported to Europe more than doubled. But times were changing – in the following decade, the Eastern market collapsed, unable to compete with the productive Jacquard looms of Lyons in France and those of Paisley in Scotland. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 resulted in the closure of the French market for Kashmirs, and the ensuing collapse of trade, followed by the severe famine of 1877-79 saw the loss of most of the shawl-weavers. Within a generation of its final phase of prosperity, the Kashmir shawl industry was dead, and the art of its weavers close to being lost.



Why “Paisley”?

By the late 1700’s, the demand for Kashmir shawls was so great that it could not be satisfied. European weavers, realising the potential of the shawl market, established production centres imitating Kashmir shawls including in Edinburgh in 1790 and Norwich in 1792.

Around 1808, the first shawls were produced in Paisley, Scotland, already one of the leading producers of silks and gauzes, fine lawn and damask, and well-equipped to take on the weaving of these ‘imitation’ shawls.

“Paisley” which is the description now synonymous, world-wide, with the stylised pine or tear-drop motif acquired this association after 1840 when the Scottish town became the most prolific western centre of shawl manufacture.  The term “paisley” is now used even in India when talking about locally made shawls.  The exceptions are France, which was also a major player in making “shawls in imitation of the Indian” and holds to the term ‘Cashmere shawls’, and Norwich where in the Norwich Museum which has a fine collection of “Norwich shawls” it is frowned upon to use the term ‘paisley’!

Norwich shawls


Paisley Weaving and its own Industrial Revolution

Up until the 1820’s, weaving was a cottage industry. The weaver lived typically in a single storey house with a central passage – on one side were his small living quarters, on the other side a weaving shop, where he and a draw boy toiled over handlooms.  Unlike the Kashmiri twill-tapestry technique, the Paisley weavers (and weavers throughout Europe) used conventional looms where the weft threads (the horizontal pattern threads) passed fully across the full width of the shawl, but remaining loose at the back whenever not part of the design. This made for a heavy fabric and limited the achievable intricacy of the pattern.

When the Jacquard loom came to Paisley in the1820’s, the progressive town came into its own. With this loom, practically any design could be woven, complex Kashmir patterns could be copied and local designs, still with the tear drop motif, were equally successful. 


The introduction of the Jacquard loom and the innovations of the Paisley weaving industry coupled with demand for the shawls, took the industry away from its cottage base to specialised workshops. The looms were larger, more expensive, and production quicker requiring a division of labour. People became employed for particular skills:

– spinners: grading, cleaning the fleeces, spinning into long lengths of wool

– wool dyers: in Mughal times more than three hundred tints made from vegetable dyes: blues and purples from indigo; orange and yellow from carthamus and saffron; reds mainly from logwood, as well as cochineal for crimson; iron filings for black.  For shawl production Paisley still used mainly natural dyes and went from having three dyers working in the town in 1783 to 17 in 1830 

– pattern-makers, pattern drawers & colour-callers

– warp-dressers: preparing the yarn for weaving e.g. starching the warps

– warp-threaders: passing the yarns through the heddles of the loom

– weavers: all men, reportedly the most oppressed section of the industry

– clippers: after weaving the back of a shawl had to be clipped to remove surplus floating weft threads. This was initially done by girls working with shears but later by machines.  Up to two thirds of the weight of a shawl was often removed by this process.

Then, after all this, the shawls still had to be washed, stented (stretching for elasticity) and calendered (steam pressing to give a beautiful sheen) 

Unfortunately also came the necessity for shawl-brokers: intermediaries between the producers and foreign merchants who funded production, and were the main profit-makers.  Called ‘corks’ they essentially employed the weavers and in the 1850’s a major industrial dispute arose over their insistence on the inclusion of an additional hidden strengthening thread that they would not pay for – the sma’ shot.  In 1856 the weavers finally won payment and a holiday declared.  “Sma’ Shot Day” is still celebrated each year in Paisley with a holiday and parade.

Paisley’s Success and the Inevitable End of the Paisley Shawl Era

By 1834, shawls with a value of over one million pounds were being produced in Paisley. When the young Queen Victoria reputedly purchased 17 of them – her favourite, among the velvets, satins, and tartan shawls, was the long “plaid” Paisley shawl – the popularity of this style of shawl exploded. 

By 1850, there were an amazing 7,000 weavers working in the town.

By the 1860s, trade peaked with over 71 shawl manufacturers operating in the town and making the colourful, fashionable ‘Paisley’ shawl affordable and accessible across the world.

Paisley shawls that will be on display at the Quilt & Craft Spectacular, October 31 – November 1, 2020


During this period, the Paisley manufacturers introduced printed shawls. The process of making printed shawls involved using wooden blocks with the pattern lines inlaid with metal, then printing with metal rollers. Often employing many colours and using numerous blocks, and requiring designing, weaving, dyeing, block-cutting, printing, and finishing – all were performed in Paisley.  Printed shawls, often made of fine silk or wool gauze, were lighter in weight and much cheaper than the woven shawls. Some of these gauze shawls were exquisite productions.  They were, however, more perishable. These days, they are rare finds, even fragments, and usually, unfortunately, in poor condition.

In the 1860’s, when the bustle came into fashion, the popularity of the shawl declined – it would not drape over a bustle in a way that revealed the main feature of the outfit.  Interest in the all-enveloping shawls waned, and the trade ended in the following decade.  The Paisley shawl eventually faded into obscurity.

Regrettably, the art of the manufacture of these masterpieces is almost forgotten, and much knowledge of the craft is already lost.  But shawls are still to be found, in attics and dusty trunks, coming onto the market on occasion, to the delight of ardent collectors of Victoriana.





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