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.
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.
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.
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.
When you’re through trying to figure out what that weaving stuff means you will be asking “Why didn’t the British import Kashmiri sheep and raise their own soft goat hair? They tried in 1818, but didn’t get good hair production. Britain wasn’t cold enough, apparently.
Anyhow, the creamy ecru background of many of the scarves in those Regency portraits is the natural color of goat’s fleece. Also, the finest goat wool, like the finest sheep wool and, for all I know, the finest cat fur, comes from the underbelly of the animals. These are the little factoids that make life so cool and give you something to talk about at parties.
How popular was the Kashmiri shawl?
Pretty popular, as per:
“…a fine cashemire shawl, with brown background, and richly variegated border, is generally thrown over the dress, in which is united both comfort and elegance.”
La Belle Assemblé, 1806
“…over these is thrown, in elegant drapery, a long Indian shawl of the scarf kind, the colour of the palest Ceylon ruby, the ends enriched by a variegated border…”
La Belle Assemblée, 1812
(Though I’m not sure what color a “pale Ceylon ruby” would be.)
After the Regency period, in the age of many petticoats and full crinolines, scarves expanded to accommodate. We get huge scarves in this era.
And here's another example of the difference between imported scarves and British ones. The British-woven scarves might weigh three pounds. The imported Kashmiri shawl of roughly the same size, five to nine ounces.
And eventually, the paisley-patterned scarf went away, as fashions will. Paisley shawls declined in popularity after the 1770s. It's likely the new fashion of bustles meant shawls no longer draped attractively. And block-printed fabrics – ever so much cheaper – became popular. This undermined the exclusivity of the paisley shawl.
So, there you have it. The shawl we all know and love from Historical Romances. How many downtrodden heroines have been sent off to fetch the cranky dowager's shawl and run headlong into the hero?
Now me, I have a fine wool shawl that lives over the back of my favorite chair all winter long. It's from Kashnir, I think, and has genuine botehs on it. When the woodstove heats my front nicely, the shawl covers my back.
And you? Is it a shawl for you sometimes? All the time? Never?