How to identify your paisley shawl

18th c. Kashmiri tapestry shawl detail

The best way to tell if a shawl is tapestrywoven, Jacquard-woven, or embroidered, is to take a close-up look at the back.  If it’s tapestry, there will be little ridges at the boundaries of colour areas where the neighbouring wefts interlock and turn back on themselves (along with some floats in different directions and tag ends).  If it’s Jacquard or loom-woven, there will be a lot of parallel weft-wise floats where the coloured wefts skip from one detail to the next (these floats may be trimmed off, leaving tufts of cut ends).  If it’s embroidered, it will be covered with floats going every-which-way.
In all three cases, the warp threads will be one continuous colour, or stripes, unless the shawl is composed of patchwork pieces, either according to the original design, or reassembled from salvaged strips and fragments.
Tapestry, the original technique of the Kashmir shawl, implies “discontinuous wefts”, threads of the required colour that are woven back and forth in the area where the design requires the colour, and that join with neighbouring wefts to form the fabric as a whole.  “Discontinuous” means there are no wefts that pass from selvedge to selvedge of the whole width.  On the back of the cloth there will be slight bumps and ridges where the two neighbouring colours loop around each other.  Designs for tapestry technique can feature distinct areas of any number of colours, because each is a separate weft thread.  Because it is a hand-controlled process depending on the skill and patience of the weaver, very few “paisley” shawls were tapestry-woven in the West.
When the fashion for Kashmir shawls took hold in the West at the beginning of the 19th century, the manufacture of shawls there was based on loom-controlled weave structures that copied and adapted the appearance of Kashmir shawls.  It was just at this time that the Jacquard mechanism was invented.  Instead of weaving-in each different-coloured weft step by step across the width of the fabric, all the warps controlling design details of a certain colour are lifted at once and a shuttle inserting that colour weft is passed from edge to edge.  Where that colour doesn’t appear on the front, it is carried across the back in floats.  If the shawl design calls for many colours, a mass of floats will build up on the back of the cloth, that may be sheared off in the finishing process.  The limitations of this loom-controlled process led to designs using as few colours as possible, appearing in as many details as possible.  Loom-controlled shawls tend to show designs with a limited palette of colours and a homogenous distribution of small details (which as a tapestryweaver I have taken repeated pleasure in referring to as “soupy overall harmony”).  Unfortunately, the popularizing of these design characteristics in Western markets prompted Kashmiri tapestry shawl weavers to adopt stripped-down palettes and proliferating details, even though they were not subject to the same technical limitations.  Even the term “paisley” applied to shawls of this style, was the place name of a weaving town in Scotland, now part of metropolitan Glasgow.
Highly skilled embroidery has played a variety of roles in Kashmir shawls.  Requiring almost no tools, it can be done anywhere by any number of workers.  On plain-coloured cloth, embroidery has a natural affinity for the fluid, painterly designs typical of Kashmir shawls.  Tapestrywoven shawls with background colours roughly blocked in can be intended to be finished with embroidered detail.  In the finest examples of these, embroidery covers the tapestry weft joins so that the back of the shawl is as presentable as the front, or diagonal rows of tiny stitches fill areas to imitate the traditional twill weave structure.  Fully tapestrywoven shawls may still have some embroidery added to outline, emphasize, or correct parts of the design.  Stitchery is used to invisibly join the separately-woven, coordinated pieces of patchwork shawls, or to recycle fragments of damaged or unfashionable shawls into new assemblages.  And the embroiderer’s services were regularly used to repair the wear and tear noticed when shawls were brought out at the onset of the winter season.  Whether it’s crudely obvious on the back of the fabric or not, to the eyes of a weaver the distinctive character of stitchery is that it’s not limited by the perpendicular logic of warp and weft.

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~ by Peter Harris on 03/08/2012.

3 Responses to “How to identify your paisley shawl”

  1. Great Info. What is the actual weave structure of Paisley Jacquard woven shawls? Is it twill or tabby? They all look so uniform I can’t tell. Thanks so much. Heather Bell

    • Hello Heather,
      I’m not so much of a loom weaver, but here goes: because with a Jacquard mechanism each warp thread is lifted independently, the weave structure can look like tabby, twill, or anything. Paisley shawls often tried to maintain the twill-weave look of the twill-tapestry Kashmir shawls. Because each weft colour was inserted intermittently across the width as required by the design, and otherwise floated across the back, I would classify it as brocade.
      All the best, Peter.

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