Prowling Around Paisley

A recent trip to Scotland gave me a chance to add dimension to what I’ve already learned from the Historic Dress project’s exploration of shawls. An invitation to a conference in Glasgow (on early modern women and work) provided the chance to do some touring around, and to prepare for the trip I wanted to learn more about Scotland’s textile industry. For obvious reasons I started by reading about the history of tartans, and visits to the National Museum of Scotland as well as a variety of castles and other sites afforded opportunities to see portraits and other paintings that plot the history of this iconic fabric. Another textile-related highlight was seeing the Great Tapestry of Scotland–a truly spectacular effort in conception, design and execution, as the dozens of photos I snapped will attest! Though I was sorry not to be able to get to New Lanark (which I heard great things about from other travelers), the Islay Woolen Mill, where we could see (and hear) the machinery in operation, was a highlight there.

But given this project’s focus on shawls, it was exciting to find Paisley included on the Scottish Textile Trail. Located very near the Glasgow airport, it was an easy stop to make. Most travelers probably head to Paisley to see the beautiful Paisley Abbey, but I was happy to get to walk the streets and try to contemplate the setting behind the shawls we investigated as part of our project, and to imagine the men and women behind their making.

Driving into the city center, which is just 20 minutes on the M8 west of Glasgow, street signs mark Cotton, Thread and Gauze Streets, placenames that signal the city’s distinctive history. The Paisley Museum and Art Gallery contains a permanent exhibit, “Shawls! the fabric of Paisley.” Exhibits interpret the history of shawl production globally, and particularly in Paisley, explaining that while Paisley was neither the first nor the only city to manufacture shawls, it did so on such a large scale that shawls with the boteh or buta motif became synonymous with the town. The exhibit begins by explain the Persian origins of the distinctive droplet-shaped design element, which crept into British visual culture beginning in the seventeenth century via fabrics imported from British India, and particular the region of Kashmir, at that time referring to the valley between the Great Himalayas and the Pir Panjal mountain range. In the eighteenth century, Paisley became a major manufacturing center of shawls incorporating this design, and in the first half of the nineteenth century, the town was a leading producer of both loom-woven and printed shawls, the latter lowering the price point and making shawls accessible to a broader swath of the public. The site also became a center of thread production. The surprisingly modest number of shawls on display is nevertheless enough to allow visitors to appreciate the evolution of shawl design over the eighteenth and nineteenth century, from the long rectangular textiles of the neoclassical era to the triangular shapes of the 1820s and 30s, when shawls 6′ square were folded diagonally, the point nearly reaching skirt hems. The advent of another new silhouette in the 1840s, when wide crinolines made the triangular styles impractical, meant another evolution in the history of Paisley shawls. New cloths, typically 11′ by 5’6″–called Paisley plaids, though they were not plaid in design in the modern sense; the term referred to the rectangular shape–were folded and draped to create an outergarment that could be worn over these gowns.

Though the Paisley shawl managed to adapt to several decades of changing fashion, it was the arrival of the bustle that made further adaptation untenable. The cherished shawls of the previous century migrated to trunks and chests, awaiting a revival that never came. The collapse of the shawl as a required accessory hit the city hard. This, coupled with economic crises and labor unrest, meant that the second quarter of the nineteenth century saw many mill closings. The exhibit tracks the history of workers in the city, including landmark labor actions in response to the changing economy. Paisley is a fascinating place.

Other sites in the city to flesh out the story include the Sma Shot Cottages, the Thread Mill Museum, and the Dooslan Stane or Stone (a meeting place of the Weavers Union in the South of Paisley). Needless to say, I’m eager to go back — and to check out other stops on the Scottish Textile Trail.

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