The paisley motif is a Persian symbol of life and eternity

Mawlana Hazar Imam’s robes comprise motifs known as paisley. The motif can be traced back at least 2,000 years to Persia, specifically to Zoroastrianism, the oldest monotheistic religion taught in sixth century BCE by the prophet Zarathustra, who was known as Zoroaster by the Greeks.

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According to tradition, Zoroaster had a divine vision at the age of thirty and began to reform the polytheism practised in ancient Persia.

Zoroastrian cosmos is dualistic – everything in existence comprises a spiritual aspect called menog, along with the material aspect , the getig. It was the state religion of three dynasties: Achaemenid (550-330 BCE), Parthian (247-224 BCE), and Sassanian (224 BCE- 651 CE) until the advent of Islam in the seventh century.

In Zoroastrian tradition trees in general and evergreens in particular are considered earthly embodiments of the immortality of the soul; it is believed that Zoroaster planted the evergreen Cypress tree as a reminder of this concept. Subsequently Cypress trees were planted around temples and graves to remind of the eternity of the soul.

A 4,000-year old Cypress tree in Yazd, Iran. Image: ResearchGate

The shape of the tree also represented a flame, leading up to heaven. This shape was woven into carpets, textiles, and incorporated on architecture.

Source: History of textiles
Column capital at the No Gombad ruins Balkh, Afghanistan, 9th century. Source: Heritage Institute

During religious ceremonies, small branches of the Cypress tree were an important part of the rituals.

Subsequently, a single stem plant was used to represent the tree, and eventually a cluster of plants was used. The motif came to be known as boteh, a Persian word meaning cluster of plants.

Paisley Buta, ca. 1600. The Kashmir Company.

The motif was eventually stylised into a shrub-like shape and then into a cone shape with either a straight or curved tip.

Paisley Buta ca. 1770-1800. Image: Kashmir Design
Complex patterns evolved as the demands by royals increased

As people and ideas travelled along the Silk and Spice Routes, the designs evolved based on the artists’ interpretations of the imported goods.

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.

Boteh in the crown of Nader Shah Afshar ( r. 1688 – 1747). Image: History of Graphic Design

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 motif into innovative carpet styles. The boteh was widely used by the monarchs of the Safavid dynasty (1501-1736) and became a major textile pattern for the Qajar dynasty (1785-1925).

Portrait of Mirza Aqasi, chief minister of the Qajar court and leading figure of the Ni’mat Allahi Sufi order. Painted by Abu’l-Hasan Ghaffari (18th-19th century). Image: The Ismailis An Illustrated History
Portrait of Qajar monarch Mirza Aqa Khan Nuri, 19th century, wearing a paisley robe. Image: The Ismailis An Illustrated History
Qajar monarch Fath Ali Shah (r. 1797-1834). Image: Wikipedia
Imam Hasan Ali Shah Aga Khan I. Image: The Ismaili Imams
Imam Agha Ali Shah Aga Khan II. Image: The Ismaili Imams
Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah. Image: A. Maherali/Ismailimail

Sultan Zein-al-Aabedin (r. 1420-1470), ruler of Kashimir, is believed to have taken the Persian boteh to the Indian subcontinent, where it came to be known as buta. Kashmir had a robust weaving industry that quickly incorporated the buta into their shal production. From the Persian language, 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.

Kashmiri buta shawl. Image: Zoroastrian Heritage

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 or presented as gifts to royalty; they came to be known as shawls.

In nineteenth-century Britain, the Kashmiri shawls were a must-have item. Since English law restricted women’s abilities to inherit land, these expensive shawls, some costing more than a London apartment, served as valuable assets for women. Charles Dickens noted in his monthly publication Household Words:

“…if an article of dress could be immutable, it would be the (Kashmir) shawl; designed for eternity….”

The demand for the expensive imported 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 buta motif around 1808. The town dating to the seventh century, takes its name from the Celtic term Passeleg, meaning basilica, indicating a major church. The town became a major centre of shawl production with over 7,000 weavers by 1850, giving the motif its name.

Over time, customers began to demand more complex patterns.

Paisley scarf, Scotland, before 1888. Image: The Rijksmuseum
Portrait of a Young Lady in a Red Dress with a Paisley Shawl by Eduard Friedrich Leybold, 1824. Image: Mimi Matthews

With the invention of the punch card system by Joseph Jacquard in 1804, the shawls were produced twenty-five times faster and with more colours. The Industrial Revolution decreased the cost of shawl production in Europe, making them affordable for commoners. By late 1800s, the paisley was out of fashion.

In the 1960s and 70s, The Beatles “went crazy for paisley,” followed by other musicians such as Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix, among others, cementing the paisley’s association with rock and roll. In the 1990s, the rock band Oasis brought the paisley into the forefront. “Suddenly, a style once worn predominantly by women in the 19th century, or royalty in the Persian empire, was now a mainstay of British male fashion, visible everywhere from the football stands to the music venues” (Heritage of Paisley).

Today the motif can be seen on sporting teams’ uniforms, footwear, as well as modern clothing for men and women. It seems that the paisley has remained true to its original meaning of immortality and eternity. Lindsay Baker notes: “…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.”

Sources:
Dr. Cyrus Parham, A research into the evolution of a millennia-old motif, Nashr-e Danesh, vol.16, no. 4, 1378,
Lindsay Baker, Behind the rock’s favourite fashion, BBC Culture
A brief history of paisley, the Guardian
K. E. Eduljee, Boteh, Zoroastrian Heritage
Patrick Moriarty & Paisley Power, The History of the Paisley Symbol and Paisley Pattern
Pavni Gupta, Paisley, A Journey – From Ages Across Borders, Pearl Academy, Delhi, India

Contributed by Nimira Dewji. Nimira is an invited writer although she has contributed several articles in the past (view previous articles). She also has her own blog – Nimirasblog – where she writes short articles on Ismaili history and Muslim civilisations. When not researching and writing, Nimira volunteers at a shelter for the unhoused, and at a women’s shelter. She can be reached at nimirasblog@gmail.com.

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