Paisley’s History

lime abbey

At a glance, it is clear to see just how much this town was influenced by the textiles industry. Silk, Cotton, Lawn, Gauze, Thread, Shuttle and Mill all grace the street signs of a place which was once world famous for textiles manufacturing and the Paisley pattern shawl.

By far the most prominent and ubiquitous output of Paisley’s weaving past is the Paisley pattern and Paisley shawls. The name derives from the town of Paisley whereas the distinctive tear drop shape has its origins in various Eastern and Middle-Eastern cultures.

The symbol spread across Asia and in the mid-eighteenth century was being woven into elaborate shawls in the Kashmir region of India. They were traditionally given as gifts and only to the very wealthy. The shawls filtered back to Europe where members of the aristocracy took a shine to the rich designs and luxurious fabrics and the implications of wealth that they brought. These shawls were aspirational but inaccessible to all but the elite; however, Paisley found a way of producing something equally beautiful but faster.

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Paisley produced its first shawl in 1805 with the weavers already skilled in muslin, lawn and silk work. By this time there were thousands of looms in Paisley and as many people employed in weaving with them. Paisley was able to out-produce the competition with their superior weaving technology and skill, causing several other places to go out of business, unable to compete with Paisley’s reputation and skill.

In the early days of shawlmaking a weaver worked at home on his drawloom, with the help of a draw-boy to raise and lower the threads in order. Weaving the intricate patterns called for intelligence, patience and skill.

The lesser known Radical War took place in Scotland in 1820 creating intense political activity and unrest. There was an economic downturn at the time which was blamed on corruption within the political system and freedom of speech and assembly was oppressed. Workers in Paisley were fighting for better wages, conditions and rights.

Paisley never lost its radical spirit and the weavers formed their own trade union, arguing with manufacturers over questions of pay and conditions of work. The biggest battle they faced was when manufacturers refused to pay for the “sma’ shot,” a binding thread which was essential to the design. The weavers insisted on payment, and marked their success in 1856 by declaring a holiday on the first Saturday in July. “Sma’ Shot Day” is still celebrated in Paisley with a parade rallying together the various trade unions in the town as well as families and spectators, all celebrating the weavers’ victory.

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From the 1830s onwards the weaving trade became more factory-based with the introduction of the Jacquard loom, in which the draw-boy’s work was done by perforated cards. This allowed the weaving of larger and more elaborate patterns, and Paisley shawls became very fashionable. Queen Victoria bought no less than seventeen Paisley shawls and wore one to the christening of her son Albert Edward in 1842.

The pattern lives on. It is constantly recurring in fashion, never seeming to fade or become passé. It is to be spotted everywhere as a luxurious pattern synonymous with the finer things in life. Often accompanied by rich and royal colours as well as more modern interpretations, with each revival the pattern develops and expands its versatility but its heritage has the opportunity to shine through and ought never to be lost or forgotten.