Power of the Paisley
Oct 24 2013
What makes it the most endearing, and enduring, motif of all time
Look around and you will know what we mean. You will see it in our Kashmiri shawls up in the north right down to our kanjeevaram saris in the south. You will find it in off the rack clothing in the mass market and in the exclusive creations of our couturiers. Sit in at any fashion show, you will be bound to come across pieces of bridalwear embellished with this motif. As designer Gautam Gupta says: “Paisley has a regality and vintage quality to it that cannot be found in any other motif. It has become the face of Indian embellishment and with so many modern interpretations to it, it also remains forever in vogue.”
Agrees Vrinda Sethi, who recently bought a paisley-patterned outfit for her trousseau: “I looked at many patterns, a lot of them contemporary, but my eyes kept going back to the ambi and I eventually picked that. I’m glad I did, because when I combined it with my jadau jewellery on my wedding day, I knew I had made the perfect choice.”
Besides apparel designers, this motif is also a favourite with interior designers and jewellers. Both of whom agree, when in doubt, go for a paisley. Says interior designer Moyna Shukla: “When I’m looking for something classic and timeless, I know nothing can beat the paisley. It comes in so many colour and size variations that you can use it to cover your couch, make drapes and blinds or use as cushion covers to perk up a plain sofa.” As for jewellery, the motif has been around for centuries and is seen in earrings and neckpieces across any part of the country.
“No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive,” Mahatma Gandhi had once said. And this is precisely the reason for the enduring, and constantly evolving, popularity of the paisley. It has survived — and thrived — mainly because it has not remained exclusive to one culture alone. The “twisted teardrop” vegetable origin motif, is actually, many things to many cultures. In India, we know it as ambi (Hindi and Punjabi); kairi in Urdu, koyari in Marathi, kalka in Bengali, buta in Kashmiri and mankolam in Tamil.
In Chinese, it’s called the ham pattern or one half of the Yinyang symbol. In Persian, from where it all began during the Sassanid dynasty, it’s called boteh, denoting a bush, a shrub, a thicket, a bramble or herb. Some even take it to mean a palm leaf, a cluster of leaves as a repetitive pattern or a flower bud. There are a multitude of outstanding examples of the motif in pre-Islamic and post–Islamic Iranian art.
Similar curvilinear and whiplash patterns have also been seen in ancient Scythian and Achaemenid art mainly portrayed as the wings of Homa or Senmurv. In Europe, it’s also referred to as Persian Pickles or Welsh Pears. The French word for it is boteh or palme, the latter being a reference to the palm tree, which along with pine and cypress trees, are the traditional botanical motifs to have influenced the shape of the constantly evolving paisley.
If the paisley means many things to many cultures, it also means many things to many people. The Flower Children of the 60’s, or the hippes, for instance, adopted it as an emblem, creating modern psychedelic variations of it instead of the traditional intricate pattern. Remember John Lennon’s famous Paisley Rolls Royce? Or Fender Guitars Pink Paisley version of their Telecaster guitar? This was created by sticking paisley wallpaper onto the guitar bodies. Popstar Prince paid tribute to the rock and roll history of paisley when he created the Paisley Park Records label and established Paisley Park Studios, both named after his 1985 song Paisley Park. At the 2010 Winter Olympics, Azerbaijan’s team came out in the march past in vibrant paisley trousers. A Russian publication noted that “Azerbaijan has no chance of winning, however, the country had already left its mark on the games”.
While the paisley has come to be linked with everything bohemian and rebellious in art and illustration in the western world today, it wasn’t always so. The word “paisley” actually comes from the Gaelic language and is the name of the largest town in the historic county of Renfrewshire in Scotland. Suggestive of “pasture” “basilica” or “wooded clearing”, the town has monastic origins, but as trade developed, weaving became the town’s principal industry in the mid-19th century. The most famous product of this town were the shawls, which bore the paisley pattern made fashionable by a young Queen Victoria. Despite being of Kashmiri origin and Persian linkage and simultaneously produced in other parts of Europe, the twisted teardrop pattern soon became known by the town of its recent manufacture across the western world.
It all began in the first half of the 17th century, when the British East India Company introduced shawls and other fabrics made in Kashmir to Europe. The imports from Kashmir, especially the women's shawls, became popular throughout the continent, and soon, demand outstripped supply. European weavers in France, England and Holland took advantage of the demand to produce imitations. European hand-weaving technology, however, was less sophisticated than the age old hand-weaving techniques of Kashmir, and the number of colours in the European weave were limited to two — indigo and madder.
Meanwhile, weavers in the town of Paisley surged ahead in this growing industry by introducing an attachment to their handlooms that enabled them to use five different colours of yarn. This innovation gave the Paisley weavers a competitive edge over weavers elsewhere who were still using only two hues.
The Paisley weavers also took special care to imitate the Kashmiri shawls as closely as possible. Because though local manufacture made fabrics with the paisley design more accessible in Europe, the original Kashmiri fabrics commanded a premium in price because of their beauty and superior quality. Therefore, in order to copy the latest Kashmiri shawl designs, agents from Paisley travelled to London where the Kashmiri shawls would arrive by sea. Within eight days of the arrival of a batch of Kashmiri shawls from India, Paisley imitations were being sold in London for £12 while the original Kashmiri shawls were selling for between £70 and £100 in the early 1800’s. And it wasn't long before the town of Paisley became synonymous with the motif and demand for its imitation shawls grew as women all over Britain began to ask for 'paisleys'.
With the introduction of semi-automated jacquard looms by 1860, the Paisley factories were now able to produce shawls with up to 15 colours, but that number was still only a quarter of the colours in some Kashmiri shawls. So, while local manufacture made fabrics with the paisley design more accessible in Europe, they were no match for the original Kashmiri fabrics that commanded a premium in price because of their beauty and superior quality. At the peak of their popularity, the cost of a high quality Kashmiri shawl in Britain was equivalent to the price of a small house! The East India Company continued to sell them at twice-yearly shawl sales in London.
But sometime around early 20th century, the town of Paisley went into decline. The shawl industry came to a standstill because of the introduction of fabric printing. As it is the weavers were unable to match the colour palette of Kashmiri shawls, and now, printing handicapped them further because printers could use as many colours as they wished while the weavers were still restricted to 15 at best. Also, the printing of designs on to a fabric — rather than weaving it — decreased the cost of production and, therefore, the price of the fabric. Soon, machine printed paisleys took over the European textile industry and weaving became history.
Weaving may have become history in UK, but the printed paisley has not looked back since it saw a revival in the 1960s in the west. From shirts to ties to pop motifs on belts, wallets, bags and shoes, the motif continues to be a major selling point. High-end interior design brands like Laura Ashley, in fact, have a range of furnishings in that pattern, which they continue to update year after year.
No matter how the world uses it, no matter where it travels, we in India see it as our export to the world. So what if it originally came from Persia, it is indisputably the most prominent — and by far the most popular — motif in Indian textile history. Something that has been part of our lives forever, something that we treasure till today. And now, as its journey traverses civilisations, evoking cultural memories and religious moorings across continents and people undivided by physical boundaries, the power of the paisley lives on undiminished.