Weft and Warp of Westward Expansion

Paisley Shawl; 1863
Gift of Ruth Bascom in the name of Doris Hays Fenton
Kansas State University Historic Costume and Textile Museum, 1983.19.3
Cashmere wool

The design we call Paisley comes from the ancient Persian motif and term boteh, meaning bush, shrub, or thicket. Originally, Paisley was a male pattern in the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Its floral design and arabesque, vine-like ornaments were read as symbols of fertility and the tree of life. In the eighteenth century, when the East India Trading Company opened travel to the Himalayas, Paisley began to journey to Europe. The design gained popularity in women’s fashion in the early nineteenth century, when the town of Paisley in Scotland became the epicenter for the production of shawls. Traditionally, the shawls were woven of finely spun and very soft wool from the underbellies of Tibetan goats, known as cashmere.

Our shawl is made of four distinct colors: red, light pink, cream, and green. Red is the basic warp color, the use of light pink, cream, and green weft threads create most of the Paisley pattern, forming teardrop shaped botehs, blooming flowers, and vines. At 79.5 inches long, 58 inches wide, and only around 10 ounces in weight, this shawl still holds 28 paisley patterns even if its fabric has become tenuous and is missing in parts. This was an expansive and very elegant Paisley shawl due to its delicate weave. Typical for shawls popular between 1840 and 1875, a light-colored center, which also came in scarlet or black in the case of mourning shawls, is clearly noticeable. Manhattan-born Ruth Bascom, whose parents Doris and Frederick Fenton were professors at Kansas State University, preserved this Paisley shawl together with a family anecdote. Her great-grandparents, Isaac and Maria Beach, purchased the shawl in upstate New York in 1863 to wrap Ruth Bascom’s grandmother, Ellen, as a baby and protect her during the winter. The shawl journeyed with the Beach children and their offspring from New York to Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and Kansas recording not only a family history, but also a larger American narrative of westward expansion.   

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Rachel Regier