Free learning resources from arts, cultural and heritage organisations.

The 19th Century Fashion Accessory that Inspired an Industry

This resource is part of the Museum Snapshot collection - a collection of smaller resources perfect for starters, plenaries or spare moments to explore something fascinating.


Resource created by: East Riding Museums Service

This woman’s shawl was made around 1840 and is woven in a mixture of cashmere and silk. It is long and wide as it was intended to be worn over a crinoline (a very full-skirted dress).

The top half of the shawl is plain white or cream and the bottom half has a red, blue and pink paisley design on it.
Silk Paisley Shawl From 1840
The kidney-shaped pattern on the border of the shawl originates from Iran, but its Western name comes from the town of Paisley, near Glasgow. It is known by a variety of names, from paisley to pine pattern and most romantically, 'Shah Jehan’s Thumb', after the great Moghul Indian emperor who built the Taj Mahal.
The Muslim religion does not allow artists and craftspeople to show living creatures in their artwork, so artists tend to use flowers and geometric shapes as inspiration for their work. These shawls demonstrate how creative they could be within this limitation.
Close up of the pattern in red, blue and pink shows small flowers grouped together in kidney-shapes
Detail of a Silk Paisley Shawl

English soldiers serving with the East India Company and the British Army bought Indian shawls embroidered with this pattern for their wives and daughters. They were highly prized and as a result were copied by textile factories at home, particularly those in Paisley, near Glasgow. The shawls became so closely associated with the Scottish weavers that the distinctive pattern acquired the name of the town.

The finest shawls made in Kashmir in Northern India were woven from the hair of the wild mountain goat, imported from Tibet or Central Asia. The name pashmina shawl comes from the word 'pashm', meaning wool in Persian, which was of very fine quality. The word shawl came from 'shal', a length of cloth in Persian.
The first reference to a British woman wearing a paisley shawl was in Journal to Eliza written by Laurence Sterne in 1767. In the text, Sterne describes Eliza, a fashionable woman friend he knew later in life, as bringing over 'Kashmirs from India'.

Scottish weavers were at first seen as producing inferior products to the Kashmiri weavers and in 1820 plans were made to bring over Indian families to work on shawl manufacture. Mechanised looms meant that Paisley shawls could be produced cheaply for everyone, gradually however they lost their fashionable appeal and by the 1860s were no longer produced.

Young person’s response to this object:

It looks quite lightweight and silky but when you lift it up it is in fact coarse and heavy - Esther Vincent


Discussion ideas

  • The complex pattern on the shawl is woven; the warp (the vertical threads) is silk and the weft (the horizontal threads) is cashmere wool. Look at your clothes and discuss which fabrics are woven. Can you identify which are the warp and weft threads?
  • What patterns do you often see recurring on clothes today?
  • Fashion ideas travel quickly and clothing styles change. Discuss all the things that this involves, and whether it is a good thing?
  • The shawls originally travelled from India. Where are many of the clothes and shoes we wear today made?
  • Trading between countries means that people travel for work. How far do people you know have to travel to work?
  • What advantages and disadvantages might there be in travelling to other countries to work?
  • What do you know about Kashmir today?


Activity Ideas

  • Printing: The pine cone motif of the Paisley Shawl repeats to produce a colourful border. Use a print block or blocks to recreate a border on a piece of paper or fabric with printing ink.
  • Doodle a pattern: Start off by drawing a paisley pattern motif and continue it to build a fabric design, doodling from your imagination.  See where the doodling takes you! Think about what your design might be useful for? What could you have your design woven into?
  • Map a trade route: Use a map or online map below to track the journey the shawls would have travelled by land in the 1800s from Kashmir, and compare it to air routes today.