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The Paisley Shawl and the People who made it
Chapter XII - Decay of the Shawl Trade - Conclusion


THE Paisley Shawl being an article of luxury and expense, was affected by the vagaries of fashion. The demand was not constant. Periods of depression were frequent, and productive of much suffering to the poor weavers. The history of a new pattern or fabric generally runs a settled course. At first it is produced of the finest materials, and at a high cost. It is taken up by the wealthy classes and becomes fashionable. Soon, however, some manufacturer, desirous of increasing his trade, produces a lower article, and appeals to an extended circle of buyers. This goes on till the upper classes forsake it for some new attraction, and the trade decays.

The Harness Shawl ran this course. At one time some of them sold as high as 20. As long as a demand at this rate endured, the times were prosperous. But to stimulate demand, lower qualities were made, until the shawl came to be composed entirely of cotton. The next move was to produce cheap printed imitations. These efforts only served to throw the true Harness Shawl out of fashion, while the mistaken idea among the weavers, that strikes would mend matters, only accelerated the inevitable.

Whatever consequences, some of them not very desirable, the change from hand production to mechanical power, may have brought upon us, it has certainly created a greater and more steady demand for labour. The present generation has little idea of the hard lot which sometimes came, quite unmerited, upon the working-man in past times. In our days poverty is in the main self-made. There is no necessity for it. With a little prudence, industry, and sobriety, qualities which surely every man can possess, no one need despair of attaining to a fair measure of comfort.

But in the days when hand-loom weaving of shawls was the principal, and almost the only industry in Paisley, there were frequent and long-continued times of depression, when even the most frugal and well-behaved operatives had a hard struggle to make ends meet. The "soup kitchens" were a common institution in those days, and often for long periods had to be maintained to keep the poor weavers from absolute starvation. We have now no experience of such a state of matters. It was a misfortune that the town had practically only one form of occupation, and not till more varied industries were established, was this evil mitigated.

Appeals for help were often made. Queen Victoria, always sympathetic with those who were suffering, tried to revive the fashion for Paisley Shawls. But these efforts to bolster up a decaying trade only served to prolong the misery. No patronage of the great could seriously affect the trend of fashion. Business declined and many firms went into liquidation. The town itself in 1842 became bankrupt, and only in 1872 was it extricated from this unfortunate position. Large numbers of the youth of the town were forced to seek employment elsewhere, and between 1870 and 188o the manufacture of Harness Shawls ceased altogether in Paisley.

The subsequent prosperous condition of the town is in a measure the result of this depression. The male labour having gone elsewhere, the female labour was quite a drug in the market. At this time the sewing machine was invented, and came into extensive use, with the result of creating a great demand for sewing thread. Thread-making had been long established in Paisley, and when the increased demand came, the supplying of it naturally gravitated to where labour was cheap, rather than to other places where female labour was more expensive. The Paisley firms had the wisdom to avail themselves of these economic conditions to extend their business, which has since gone up by leaps and bounds. In so doing they were conferring a great benefit on the town, as well as upon themselves. They brought back a more stable prosperity by establishing an industry not affected by the uncertainties of fashion, and they have spent much of their well-earned wealth in adorning and beautifying the town, while in other and less visible ways, they have exhibited a princely liberality.

While we view with satisfaction the increased comforts and advanced prosperity which the town now enjoys, we cannot fail to note that it is not the old Paisley of the days of the shawl trade. Perhaps no town in the kingdom has undergone such a revolutionary change as Paisley during the last generation. New thoughts, new desires, new methods, absorb the people. The weaving days are almost forgotten. Yet it was in some respects a remarkable past. The period of the Paisley Shawl is a complete epoch. Its life history is ended. It did not evolve into a new form of similar industry; it died absolutely out. It forms, therefore, a subject suitable for an historical sketch; suitable also for being commemorated in the local Museum. A people who take no interest in their glorious past are unworthy of a prosperous present. To all who take pride in their ancient town, this epoch of the Paisley Shawl is a time worthy of being commemorated. No more beautiful and instructive section of the local Museum could be formed, than one which would show some choice specimens representing the marvellous taste and skill of these old harness weavers, with illustrations of the simple machinery with which such results were obtained.

They are gone from us now, this race of fine old men, with their wondrous skill in handicraft, their keen love of nature and of poetry, their sturdy Radicalism, their God-fearing integrity, and their patient suffering in adversity. But it would be well that their memory was kept green amongst us, and that coming generations of Paisley men may be able to regard with pride, the beautiful productions of their forefathers, and learn the lesson, that life need not be a daily uninteresting drudgery, but may be beautified by a loving interest in the products of industry, whatever they may be. Let the example of these grand old weavers stimulate the workmen of every trade in the town to attain the highest excellence, each in his own department, and to maintain the reputation of the town for artistic taste and high intellectual culture, which was stamped upon it by the old harness weavers. And for this end we commend to the wealthy of the present generation, whose success is directly built upon the decay of the hand-loom industry, to found some enduring record and illustration of the Paisley Shawl.


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