Persian Pickles, Welsh Pears: A History of the Paisley Pattern
From rock stars to emperors, the iconic paisley pattern has a long history. We go on a road trip from Scotland to Babylonia to explore how paisley's meaning has changed throughout the centuries
On Cotton Street, Paisley, stands a sign that reads 'Renfrewshire House', the headquarters of the Renfrewshire Council. The sign’s logo is familiar to the townsfolk: two blue teardrops, entwined like the Yin and Yang. But the passing traveller will not think much of it. The teardrops are a variation of the famous 'paisley pattern', the motif that brought riches and ruin to the town that named it.
Though Paisley saw its heyday as a weaving hub during the Industrial Revolution, the pattern that blessed its economy is ancient. It is observed in Celtic art, which disappeared with the Romanisation of Britain, though its true origin is likely in the Chaldea, a Mesopotamian civilisation later absorbed into Babylonia. From there, it probably spread east into Asia, and into western Europe, which accounts for its presence in Celtic Britain. While the Babylonian origin theory is still contested, the paisley pattern as we know it was most certainly found in Sasanian Persia (between the third and seventh centuries CE), appearing on both regalia and commoners’ garments. It was the boteh jehgeh – the 'ancient motif', birthed in the shadow of the Zagros Mountains, eventually propelling itself into the European psyche as an exotic symbol of good times and the reckless spirit.
The actual symbolic meaning of the boteh is disagreed upon; it is thought to depict a droplet, feather, tadpole, pine cone, almond, teardrop or cypress tree, and can connote strength, modesty, nobility, fertility, the sun or even the phoenix, depending on who is asked. While still widely popular as a Zoroastrian religious symbol in the courts of the Persian Shahanshahs (king of kings), the motif travelled across the rugged highlands of Afghanistan, deep into Kashmir, India’s northernmost frontier. It was through the Kingdom of Kashmir that the boteh jehgeh continued its journey across mountain, sea, desert and jungle, into the most ramshackle of factories, and onto the garbs of the richest men in the world.
Kashmir was the birthplace of the extremely coveted pashmina shawl, which featured the boteh jehgeh more than any other design. The Mughal Emperor Akbar popularised the giving of the shawls as robes of honour, or khil’at. When East India Company officials first encountered Kashmiri princes, they too engaged in this ritual exchange and took these shawls back home. Napoleon himself brought back a pashmina for Joséphine on his return from Egypt, and the latter is often credited with popularising it in Europe.
The shawl became so central to European fashion that many manufacturers made unsuccessful attempts at imitating the Kashmiri (or, as it came to be known, cashmere) garment. With the introduction of the Jacquard loom, Paisley-the-Town’s shawl-making industry grew exponentially, and the boteh jehgeh became one of the most common sights in its factories, shops and homes. In the English-speaking world, the word ‘paisley’ soon became synonymous with the word 'shawl'. Across the globe, different names cropped up for the boteh jehgeh: 'tadpole' in France, 'little onion' in Vienna, 'Persian pickle' in the United States, and 'Welsh pear' in Wales.
The pashmina’s popularity was famously unstable, but it fell permanently out of favour in the 1870s, and the industry collapsed, hitting Paisley particularly hard. The Indian and Pakistani nationalist movements of the twentieth century revived its production, but with the fall of European demand, the dynamic journey of the boteh jehgeh also concluded in Asia, its significance static and its place in fashion entrenched.
In Europe, however, the motif emerged as a symbol of a bohemian lifestyle in the 1960s, after a few resurfacings in the first half of the twentieth century (unsurprisingly, on the smoking jackets of Oscar Wilde). Bowie, Jagger and The Beatles transformed it into a symbol of nonconformity and rebellion – John Lennon famously adorned his Rolls-Royce with paisleys. In the 1970s, it appeared on handkerchiefs as a secret code among gay men in San Francisco. As in Sasanian Persia, people still could not decide what the paisley stood for. The boteh is rich, malleable and infused with a spiritual essence the observer simply cannot explain. Perhaps this is why it has remained alive in the West even today, on waistcoats, bandanas and summer shirts.
The boteh jehgeh is a lesson in everlasting design. After having played a decisive role in Paisley-the-Town’s development, it is now retired to its museums. And what of the East? The pattern is woven onto pashmina even today, slightly less in fashion than it used to be, but still valued for its history and quality. It is sold in both khadi bazaars and expensive designer stores. But chances are that (much like a tourist outside Renfrewshire House) the average customer will think of the boteh jehgeh simply as a pretty motif, not an enigmatic emblem that once reigned supreme over the aesthetic tastes of rock stars and emperors.