The Paisley Pattern: Kashmir Shawls

Tapestry has long been the weaving technique of choice or non-repeating designs. While the word tapestry usually evokes large woven hangings from the Middle Ages and Renaissance period, more intimate pieces such as shawls from Kashmir in northern India have enchanted European women since the 18th century. The finest of these shawls are works of art, featuring highly intricate floral patterns known as boteh or buta (Persian for flower) and delicate pointillistic effects.

Two Kashmir shawls from the 19th century showing the boteh (tear drop) floral motif.

As one can imagine, weaving a Kashmir shawl is a time-consuming business. Indeed, a richly woven shawl can take up to a year to finish. The weaving technique used in making these shawls is known as twill tapestry, where weft threads, the pattern builders, are woven in separately by hand, like the brushstroke by brushstroke process of building an image in painting. The process is difficult even for a seasoned weaver but it is worthy of the finest cotton (made from the scattered underfur of the Himalayan goat). The combined effects of material and technique are shawls which are not only pleasing to the eye but also sensual to the touch.

Kashmir shawls were in such high demand that Europeans commissioned large numbers of them from India, and eventually tried to imitate the Indian product, albeit with mixed success. In contrast to the tear drop floral motif and pointillistic look of Kashmir shawls, European weavers preferred elongated overlapping forms which became associated with the Scottish weaving town of Paisley, the most important center of production for these kinds of shawls in the 19th century.

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