The paisley motif, a Persian symbol of life and eternity

“…perhaps the real secret to the print’s [paisley] immortality is…how it blends its rich historicism with a powerful adaptability, and how it is open to endless and unexpected re-invigoration and re-interpretation.”
Lindsay Baker1

Resembling a droplet, the fig-shaped paisley motif is thought to have represented a combination of a floral spray (hence its Persian name boteh, meaning flower) and a cypress tree, an ancient Persian symbol of life and eternity.

After the advent of Islam in the region in the seventh century and the conquest of Persia by the various Muslim civilisations, the motif was incorporated into Persian arts including ceramics, stucco, metal, glass, and carpets.

Paisley motif in a column from the ruins of a Zoroastrian temple converted to a Buddhist temple and subsequently a mosque at Gonbad, south of Balkh in Afghanistan.
Image: Zoroastrian Heritage.

In the mid-fifteenth century, the motif was used by the Persian monarch to adorn the head-dresses of princes and kings, subsequently attaining the status as an emblem of sovereignty in the sixteenth century. As a result of this new status, the boteh was not used in the carpets woven in royal workshops although tribal and village weavers, unaware of its royal status, continued to weave the boteh into innovative carpet styles.

The motif was widely used by the Safavid dynasty (1501-1736) and became a major textile pattern for the Qajar dynasty (1785-1925).

The boteh was taken from Persia to the Indian subcontinent by the ruler of Kashmir Zein al-Aabedin (r.1418-1470) when he invited weavers from Persia to his kingdom, where it came to be known as buta.

The development of the motif depended on the weavers’ translations of the artistic influences from imported ceramics, documents, and fabrics into their own designs. The floral form began to acquire a cone shape, and by the eighteenth century the design had morphed into clusters of flowers with roots forming a vase, becoming a more stylised design for the shal.

From the Persian, the term shal originally denoted  a class of woven fabrics rather than a specific clothing item. Traditionally, Persian men wore the shal – a narrow waist girdle similar to the modern cummerbund – as part of their dress, while in the Indian subcontinent, males wore wide shoulder mantles.

In Kashimir, the famous Kashmiri (Cashmere) shals were made from a Central Asian species of mountain goat hair (pashm, meaning ‘inner layer of hair’). The mountain dwelling goats develop exceptionally warm and fine light fibre coats during the harsh cold climate, which they shed during the spring and the fleece is caught on thorn bushes. Villagers scoured the mountainside for the fibres which were separated from the coarse protective soft underlying hairs to be woven into soft garments. The time-consuming collection of the goat hairs coupled with the weaving into elaborate patterns could take upto three years, thus making the shal an expensive commodity.

When the Mughals conquered Kashmir in 1586, the textile industry blossomed under their reign especially during the reign of Emperor Akbar (r.1556 to 1605), an avid patron of art and architecture.

In the seventeenth century, imports from the East India Company, established to promote the British fur trade in the eastern hemisphere, as well as travellers, took the highly coveted shals to Europe where they were worn mainly by elite women, and presented as gifts to royalty.

The demand for the expensive imported shals (shawls) spurred the creation of a local industry in Europe that could produce similar items at lower costs. Although the British production of woven shawls began in Norwich, England in 1790, the Scottish town of Paisley, where a thriving cotton industry was based, began to mass-produce shawls with the popular boteh motif around 1808. The town became a major centre of woven shawl production with over 7,000 weavers by 1850, thus giving the motif its name.

Paisley scarf, Scotland, before 1888. Rijksmuseum Museum.

Over time, European customers preferred more complicated patterns on their shawls, departing from the paisley’s original symbol of immortality and timelessness.

1Lindsay Baker, Behind the rock’s favorite fashion, BBC Culture (accessed September 2017)
A brief history of paisley, the guardian (accessed September 2017)
Patrick Moriarty & Paisley Power, The History of the Paisley Symbol and Paisley Pattern (accessed September 2017)
Pavni Gupta , Paisley, A Journey – From Ages Across Borders, Pearl Academy, Delhi, India (accessed September 2017)

Compiled by Nimira Dewji

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