The shawl of beauty and grace

Madame-recamier-by-francois-gerard 1802

An old familiar friend of a painting, but do we ever look at the shawl?

Joanna here, talking about that fashion accessory of the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, the shawl.

Why shawls? We wear form-fitted, sleeved outer garments mostly — coats and sweaters and parkas and anoraks and Macintoshes — in the Twenty-first Century and feel pleased and practical doing so. Why did folks spend centuries throwing loose garments around themselves that didn’t button up and had to be draped and fidgeted with in a manner that may strike us as awkward?

I think an ideal of feminine beauty was at the root of it. The drape and swirl of a shawl, the varied possibilities with all their minute adjustments were alluring to the watcher. Displaying the shawl was an art, and this length of silk or wool might well be the most expensive object a woman wore.

So let’s talk paisley, since we’re talking shawls.

Paisley is based on a repeated, teardrop-shaped design pattern called a bota or boteh – a word that means  “shrub” or “cluster of leaves” in Persian.

Wenches star shaped tile from iran 1262

A decorative Persian tile from 1262. The boteh design comes from such roots

 This boteh is an ancient pattern, widespread in rugs, paintings, and tiles. It's an abstract shape that probably comes from the simplification of many sorts of feathers, fruit, flowers and so on in older designs. That is, there's no one origin. It's derived from many complexities that lost detail as they were copied and recopied.

In the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries the East India Company imported these Indian designs to Europe where they became immensely popular. Soldiers returning from service in the East brought back lovely, expensive scarves of silk and soft Kashmir (cashmere) wool to their sweethearts and family. The British version of the scarves might cost more than 20 pounds. Sir Walter Scott’s French bride Charlotte Carpentier was given a Kashmir shawl in 1797 for her trousseau that cost 50 guineas, a huge sum in those days.

Königin-Pauline-Württemberg-wearing-a-Kashmir-Paisley-Shawl-by-Joseph-Karl-Stieler-ca.-1825.-She-was-born-a-Württemberg-and-married-a-Württemberg.-She-is-holding-her-son-Karl-who-married-Grand-Princess-Olga.-673x1024

A fine shawl wrapping up mother and child 1825

Period portraits are full of these Kashmiri scarves gracefully swirled round the shoulders of women in flimsy low cut, high-waisted dresses. The survival of generations of scantily clad British beauties doubtless depended on these lengths of wool.

Wench british hand loom wool asilk 1810

British wool and silk paisley shawl showing boteh 1810

Almost as soon as the imported scarves arrived, they were copied enthusiastically by European weavers, among them the craftsmen of the Scottish city of Paisley, so much so that the Persian design ended up named "paisley" after that city in Renfrewshire, Scotland, far, far from the exotic mountains and plains of the East.

The handlooms and, after 1820, Jacquard looms, of the misty north produced quite a good imitation of the original Indian product. But it was  not a perfect likeness.

Throughout the import period, imported Kashmiri shawls were more expensive and preferred over the British version. The colors were more varied. Even at the height of Scots weaving they were using a mere 15 colors as opposed to the more than 40 colors used in the Eastern imports. The quality of foreign weaving superior, and the fabric itself was lighter. British shawls were made from sheep’s wool. Kashmiri scarves, from softer, more supple, more lustrous goat’s hair. And Kashmiri weavers used the “twill tapestry technique”.

Those of you in the know about weaving technique will recognize that this means the horizontal (weft) threads of the pattern do not run all the way across the fabric but are woven back and forth around the vertical (warp) threads to where the color is needed again. This is the way Europeans weave tapestries. And no, I knew nothing about weaving technique before I looked this up.

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