Edith Holman Hunt wearing a Kashmir shawl c.1860


Woven in Kashmir since about the eleventh century, the industrial production of what we commonly know as the Kashmir shawl is thought to have begun under the Mughals who dominated Central Asia in the 15th and 16th centuries. It's interesting to note that until this time men exclusively wore a narrow band of shawl fabric called a patka or a sash and was not unlike our modern cummerbund in effect at a man's waist. They were made equally for Kings (including, extraordinarily enough, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden who ruled between 1594-1632) and commoners of silk, cotton or wool, and printed, intricately woven, brocaded or embroidered.

From about 1775 travellers, explorers and military personnel as well as members of the East India Company, who, in appreciating their beauty and warmth, acquired the shawls of Kashmir and brought them back to Europe as presents. For a period of nearly 100 years, 1790-1870, they were de rigeur for wear by stylish women. Like today, the finest of these were made of cashmere from the Himalayans and Mongolia. Carola Oman's The Wizard of the North, the life story of Sir Walter Scott, notes that amongst the trousseau of his French bride Charlotte Carpentier was a Kashmir shawl costing 50 guineas (£52.50/ $100) in 1797.

The popular floral designs of paisley were woven and embroidered by the millions in Kashmir, Persia, India, across Russia, Europe and Britain. The original Kashmiri shawls were made using the twill tapestry technique whereby the weft threads (horizontals) forming the pattern were woven back and forth around the warp (vertical) threads only where a particular colour is required. Amongst European shawls "harness" weaving was commonly the technique used whereby lifting threads of the warp by harnesses the pattern was formed.

While the swirling arabesque pattern was certainly not invented here it is almost universally known for the town which gave rise to its popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries - Paisley, Scotland. Located about 11 miles from Glasgow and home to a magnificent 12th century abbey, Paisley became the epicentre (more shawls were produced here than in any other location) for weaving shawls and, as a result, "Paisley" became the generic term for the pattern. The first shawls woven in Paisley were made around 1808, and by 1850 there were over 7000 weavers in the town. It took up to six months to weave a single shawl from design concept to finally being offered in a shop, and a full two weeks to weave each shawl. The shawls were oversized squares as well as rectangular in shape with later shawls measuring four metres in length and two metres in width and usually made from blends of silk, wool and cotton.

The decline of the paisley shawl in the early 1870s can be traced to a variety of events. Fashions changed and with the advent of the bustle a shawl could not fall down the back easily, the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 halted exports of shawls from Kashmir, resulting in the collapse of the industry, and by 1870 a woven Jacquard shawl could be bought for £1 with an identical patterned cotton shawl for a few shillings. Like any other luxury good, once the shawls were inexpensive enough that every woman could afford to own at least one, no one wanted to wear to wear them.

Madame Riviere by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), (picture credit) Louvre, Paris