In order to write about shawls of British manufacture I need first to explain about the Kashmir shawl industry.
Shawls have been woven in Kashmir since about the eleventh century, but the industry producing what we refer to as a Kashmir shawl is thought to have begun during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (Fig 2,3). During the fifteenth century Persian replaced Sanskrit as the official language and the world ‘shawl’ derives from the Persian shal, denoting a class of woven fabric rather than an article of dress. During its history Kashmir experienced Mughal, Afghan and Sikh invasions, all of which left their stylistic influence on the shawl.
The Mughals, who inhabited the vast Central Asian steppe, conquered Kashmir in 1586. Under their rule the arts blossomed and the shawl industry grew. Weavers were brought in from Eastern Turkestan where the type of weave later used for Kashmir shawls was practiced. Persian men had traditionally worn narrow waist girdles of shawl fabric, as part of male dress, while the Indians wove wide shoulder mantles for male attire. These were usually given as prestigious gifts, and one can clearly see the honour in which they were held by looking at miniatures of the period, where the proud owner is seen wearing such an accessory. From about 1775 Kashmir shawls were acquired by travellers, explorers, military personnel and members of the East India Company who appreciating their beauty and warmth, brought them back as presents. In Carola Oman’s life of Sir Walter Scott, The Wizard of the North, it is recorded that Scott’s French bride Charlotte Carpentier was given a Kashmir shawl in 1797 for her trousseau which cost 50 guineas (£50/ $100), a huge sum.
The earliest design on Kashmir seventeenth and eighteenth century shawls was a single flowering plant complete with roots, inspired by English herbals (books with plant illustrations) which reached the Mughal court during the seventeenth century (4). This design gradually developed into an upright spray of flowers, and by around 1800 became the stylised cone-shaped motif known as the boteh, which we now tend to call the Paisley pine. The shape of the motif changed over the decades, from a small squat cone to a very elongated curve (5).
There are many theories about the boteh or pine motif; Paisley Museum’s explanation seems perhaps the most logical. The pattern can be traced back to ancient Babylon, where a tear-drop shape was used as a symbol to represent the growing shoot of a date palm. The palm provided food, drink, clothing (woven fibres) and shelter, and so became regarded as the ‘Tree of Life’, with its growing shoot being gradually recognised as a fertility symbol.
By the mid-nineteenth century demand in Europe for Kashmir shawls was enormous and the demand could not be satisfied. Before 1850 one man would weave a shawl on a hand loom. After this date several men or boys would weave a small section of a shawl, which would be cut out and pieced together, a patchwork of small pieces, and sewn into a shawl by a shawl tailor or rafugar. An order worked in this way could be completed in one-and-a-half months instead of the two to three years it would take to weave a shawl. Another even quicker method to increase production was to embroider shawls, either partially combining this technique with woven shawls or completely embroidering.. Amazingly, with both these methods joins cannot be detected and the design flows over the whole shawl.
The European manufacturers were not slow to realise the potential of the shawl market, with Britain taking the lead. Both Edinburgh in 1790 and Norwich in 1792, began to imitate Kashmir shawls on hand looms; Paisley followed in 1805 (6). Paisley introduced an attachment to the handloom in 1812, which enabled five different colours of yarn to be used, instead of just two colours, indigo and madder, thus better imitating the Kashmir shawls. Agents were sent from Paisley to London to copy the latest Kashmir shawls as they arrived by sea and, in eight days imitations were being sold in London for £12, the original Kashmir shawl costing £70-100.
Differences Between Kashmir & European Shawls
The two basic differences between Kashmir shawls and their imitators are the type of cloth and the weaving method. The Kashmir shawls being woven from hair, were lighter and smooth with a natural sheen, whilst the European shawls, until the end of the 1830′s, were woven from silk or wool which made them much heavier and less fine (6,7).
Methods of weaving were quite different in Kashmir and Europe. In Kashmir the shawls were woven in the twill tapestry technique, which is similar to weaving a European tapestry. The wefts (horizontals) which form the pattern do not run right across the fabric, but are woven back and forth around the warp (vertical) threads, where each particular colour is needed. Woven with goat’s fleece, the finest softest fleece, shah tus (king’s wool) came from beneath the coarse outer hair of the underbelly of wild central Asian goats (8). These goats had such hair as a protective layer against the extreme cold in the high altitudes of the Himalayan region at 1,500 ft. In spring, the goats would rub themselves against the bushes from where it was collected. This quality of fleece was used only for the most expensive shawls. The majority being woven from pashmina , hair from the underbelly of domesticated goats. The best fleece was left the natural cream colour, whilst the darker pashmina was dyed with natural vegetable dyes.
The early British shawls had warp (vertical) threads of cotton or silk. These threads were strong and could bear the strain of being lifted to introduce the pattern threads of the weft (horizontal) thread. These could be of wool, cotton or silk. Wool was not strong enough for use as a warp until the French invented a yarn of wool fibres spun round a silk core. This, together with the invention of the Jacquard loom at the turn of the nineteenth century, enabled more intricate patterns to be woven and established the French as leaders in the field. The first all-wool shawls were not made in Paisley until 1823.
Up until the 1820’s when the Jacquard loom was introduced into Paisley, weaving was a cottage industry, with a weaver owning his own handlooms. He lived typically in a single storey house with a passage through the middle; on one side were his living quarters, comprising one or two rooms plus a loft, on the other side a weaving shop with up to four looms.
The weaver, who was always a male, carried out almost all the different processes involved in weaving a shawl, often preparing the simple designs of the early period and making the cards which defined the pattern, as well as selling the shawls. Sometimes a merchant financed the materials and provided transport whilst an agent acted as middle man between the two. With the introduction of the drawloom, which required a drawboy to pull the ropes controlling the overhead harness, the weaver would call out his instructions. The shawl was woven with the underside facing the weaver so if these instructions were misconstrued, defects might not be noticed until a few hours later.
The finished shawls would be taken to the merchant who only paid the weaver if he was satisfied with the quality. The shawl would then be clipped to remove the loose threads at the back, washed, stretched and pressed to give a surface sheen. The Jacquard loom, introduced to Paisley in the 1820’s, used punched cards instead of a drawboy, eliminating human error and reducing the workforce on a loom to one. These looms, much larger and more expensive, changed a cottage industry into a factory based one. Now there was a division of labour and people were employed for particular skills.
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Irwin, John The Kashmir Shawl. Victoria and Albert Museum, 1973. ISBN 0112901646
Frank Ames The Kashmir Shawl. Antique Collectors Club, UK 1986 but recently reprinted. ISBN 0907462626
Clabburn, Pamela. The Norwich Shawl. HMSO, U.K. 1996. ISBN 0117015849
Clabburn, Pamela Shawls, Shire Books, re-published 2005. (www.shirebooks.co.uk)
Reilly, Valerie The Paisley Pattern The Official Illustrated History. 1987. Richard Drew, Glasgow ISBN 086267
Levi-Strauss, Monique The French Shawls. 1987 Dryad Press Ltd 1987. ISBN 0852197594
The Geffrye Museum is one of my favourite museums. It has displays of English urban domestic interiors from 1600 to the present day in a series of period rooms. Primary collections of English furniture and panitings. There is a walled herb garden and a series of period gardens.
The Geffrye Museum, Kingsland Road, London E2