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The Paisley Shawl and the People who made it
Chapter II - The Paisley Shawl


THE Shawl Trade of Paisley, during the time that this article of dress was in fashion, was the principal industry of the town. It was not the first class of textile woven in the district. There had previously been an extensive business in fine Muslins, in Lawns, and in certain classes of light silk goods, but these branches became quite subordinate to the manufacture of Shawls.

The Shawls were made of many classes, from the light wrap which the working-girl threw over her head before the advent of bonnets, to the warm Shepherd's Plaid, a graceful piece of attire which still maintains its popularity. But the particular shawl which afterwards became widely known as the "Paisley Shawl," was an article of what is called "harness" work. This was an attempt to produce in the loom the effects which, in the Indian Cashmere Shawl, were produced by the needle.

The Shawl came to us from the East. Mr. Cross, already quoted, says :-

"The introduction of the Shawl manufacture into this country was a result of the French Expedition to Egypt. It was from shawls sent as presents from the officers of both the European armies contending in that country, to ladies at home, that the first imitations of Turkish and Indian goods were attempted here."

Among the most beautiful products of the Eastern looms which were brought to Europe at this time, were soft woollen shawls from Cashmere, filled in with designs in needlework of a peculiar and elaborate character. Cheap as labour was in the East, these goods, by the time they reached this country, were very costly, and far beyond the reach of the ordinary buyer. These Indian Shawls were of two classes. Some of them were entirely of patchwork. A good specimen of this class is shown in Plate 2. In this shawl about 400 human figures are delineated, besides numberless bird and animal forms; the whole surrounded with rich detail work. On a close examination it will be observed that the shawl is made up of little pieces of needlework, all carefully arranged and sewn together, and probably made by many different workers. The design is exceedingly elaborate, and many years must have been spent in carrying it out. Shawls of this class, as will be observed from the example reproduced, could not be made to lie quite level or smooth, while their peculiar construction admitted of an irregularity and variety which it was impossible to imitate on the loom.

After the Patchwork Shawl comes the true Cashmere Shawl, which is a combination of needle and loom work. The weft threads, instead of being in one continuous line from side to side of the loom, are sewn in by the weaver in short lengths, the back of the fabric being to the worker. Thus, working from side to side, with several needles or small shuttles of different coloured weft in his hands, he sews in the colours along one line of welt, as required by the design, and so completes one shot, although this line of weft is broken up into many hundreds of little bits. A shawl of this class would occupy one or two weavers for several years, and the cost was proportionately high. A fine specimen of this work is represented in Plate 3. It was this class of shawl that the Paisley weavers successfully imitated on the loom. The ingenious methods and the patient labour by which they attained this end will be described further on.

The Paisley Harness Shawl attained great celebrity, and the skill of the weavers, and the enterprise of the manufacturers, maintained its supremacy against the competition of Norwich and France. In 1834, the shawls made in Paisley were estimated to be of the value of one million sterling. In the official reports of the Exhibitions of 1861 and 1862, the exhibits of the Paisley manufacturers are mentioned with special approval.

The Paisley Shawl' became the universal bridal present. In Paisley, and many other paces, it was the fashion for all newly-married ladies to be "kirked" in a Paisley Harness Plaid, quite irrespective of the state of the weather. This custom went out about 187o, but these bridal gifts are the cherished possessions of many families in Paisley. Plate 4 represents a shawl of this class. Ladies who could afford it, usually endeavoured to have a white or scarlet-centre shawl for summer wear, and a "filled-over" shawl for colder days. Cloaks and jackets were then for ladies practically unknown. Plate 5 represents a fine specimen of the "filled-in" class. It was manufactured by Messrs. David Speirs & Co., and awarded a medal at the Exhibition in London in 1862.

For all important functions the Paisley Shawl was considered the appropriate article of dress. During the depression of trade, in 1842, Her Majesty Queen Victoria, ever ready to sympathise with those in trouble, selected and purchased seventeen Paisley Shawls. In a letter, written from Windsor Castle by one of her secretaries to Provost Henderson, under date 21st January, 1842, it is stated that Her Majesty would wear one of them on the day of the Royal christening. This must have been the baptism of the Prince of Wales, the present King Edward.

Plate 8 represents one of these shawls, but with a differently coloured centre from the one supplied to Her Majesty, and most probably exhibits the design of the one worn by her on that occasion. It may be noted in passing that it is designed without the pine ornament.


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