Reading The Shawl

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The Paisley shawl measures in at a length of 79.5 inches and a width of 58 inches, weighing in around 10 ounces. At a little over 6 feet (1.8 m) long and just under 5 feet (1.5 m) wide, this shawl fits within the category of shawls being produced between the years 1840-1875, which is consistent with the year it was purchased by its family in 1863. The three leading sizes for shawls during that period were 5 feet (1.50 m) square; 5 feet (1.50m) by 8 feet 4 inches (2.50 m); 5 feet (1.50 m) by between 10-12 feet (3-3.60m). At the height of its style, this shawl would have been both light and full-coverage. If used the way fashion dictated, folded into a triangle and pinned around the shoulders at the base of the clavicle, this shawl would have fully enveloped a woman of between 5 and 5.5 feet tall. With the average crinoline frame of a woman’s dress ranging between 90-105 inches, this shawl would have been displayed at is fullest around the length and circumference of a woman’s dress (Andrews).

The structure of the shawl is tenuous. Because of its age and use, much of the shawl is backed with interfacing added after its donation to the museum in order to salvage the remnants of its original construction. Though the interfacing bolstering the shawl is nearly unnoticeable, constructing most of the wrong side of the material, it is still apparent in its design. Though the interfacing allows the shawl enough structure to be moved and thus appreciated, it also means that the structure of the weave is degraded almost beyond dissection. From what is left of the shawl, it is determinable that it has, or had, a thread count near 50. That is to say, within a singular square inch of this shawl, 25 lengthwise threads (warp) and 25 widthwise (weft) threads combined to justify a thread count of 50 (Price-Robinson). But, because of its fragile appearance, that number comes within a margin of error.

The Paisley shawl is constructed of high-quality spun wool, a product of the fleece from the underbelly of goats living in extremely cold central Asian climates. Though its elegance comes namely from its pattern and colors, the element of material was essential in differentiating the truly fashionable and desirable shawls from their imitators. The fleece from these goats, Pashmina from the Persian pašmina meaning “from the wool,” acts as a lightweight insulator, making these shawls both wearable and warm; this shawl is particularly thin with an approximate width of 1/32 of an inch (“Pashmina”). Its microfiber structure weighs roughly 10 ounces, nearly 1/5 the weight of its less expensive counterparts, many of which weigh in at closer to 50 ounces, or about three pounds.


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Although the material accounted for the expensive nature of the shawl, it is the pattern now known as Paisley that brought these shawls to fame. Back in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Kashmir (now the property of Pakistan, India, and People’s Republic of China in the northwestern region of South Asia) was conquered by is neighboring Central Asia in 1586. It was during the Mughals insurrection that the Kashmir shawl industry truly began to flourish. Emperor Akbar, who ruled from 1556-1605, brought in skilled weavers from Turkestan, Central Asia, India, and many other Middle Eastern countries; between these weavers and the Afghan and Sikh invasions, the Paisley design as it is known today with its sinuous floral designs was created. At the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, travelers, military personnel, and the East India Trading Company all acquired Paisley shawls, lending them transport to Europe. Though the earliest design on the Kashmir shawls depicted a complete, flowering plant, the pattern was later simplified to the cone-shaped motif known as the boteh, which, ultimately, transformed into the tear-shaped pear that appears on Mr. Beach’s shawl. Though there are many theories as to the origins of the boteh theme, the most fitting traces back to the earliest Babylon, where the shape of a tear drop symbolized the shoot of a date palm. Due to its multiple uses, the date palm stood first for the “Tree of Life” and later became a symbol of fertility (Eduljee).

Although the structure of the pattern remained relatively the same despite artistic liberties taken for regional tastes, no two shawls were made alike. Some shawls, unlike the Beach’s, were fashioned with lighter colored centers, either white or scarlet, intended for use in the summer. When folded as it was to be draped, the shawl would fade from top to bottom, soft to heavier colors, enhancing the lightness of the season. The consistently colorful designs were regularly used for winter and for mourning. Unlike the summer shawls, the Beach’s was covered in color and pattern from end to end. The town of Paisley, Scotland, described fully-decorated shawls such as the Beach’s as “filled harness” or “filled-in” plaids, defining consistent coloring throughout (Andrews).

Across our shawl, twenty-eight botehs can be seen in intricate patterns despite the worn quality of the wool. Making up these botehs are four different colored threads: red, light pink, cream, and green. The vertical, or warp, threads are made up of a deep sienna color, very similar to the burgundy color of the interfacing holding it together. While the warp threads run up and down the shawl from end to end, the weft threads follow a different pattern. The wefts, which form the Paisley pattern, are woven back and forth around the warps wherever a particular color is needed. These patterns are made up of the remaining colors, the crimson, pink, cream, and green. In the mid-nineteenth century, these colors would have been created by natural vegetable dyes. This explains why the shawl displays patches of discoloration and, in places, albinism. As stated by the Beach family, this was not the best shawl owned by Sarah Beach. We can then assume that this shawl saw more washing than her other one. Sarah probably used a lye- or bleach-based cleanser for the wool that, in time, wore down the quality of the coloration and the structure of the wool itself. Yet the intricate designs of the shawl are still gorgeous. Inside the circle of botehs are a series of floral representations that appear to be reaching across the shawl toward each other. These wispy tendrils seem to grow out of the circle of botehs surrounded by single plants with large cypress tree leaves. From within the ring of botehs bloom a series of flowers. Four clusters appear, each with just under ten buds produced, some in full bloom, others yet unopened. The fully-bloomed flowers appear in contrast with the others, decorated in more vivid shades of red and green, while the others appear in shades of pink and cream. Though similar images appear on either side of the shawl, it is not of a symmetrical design. The lack of scenes within the arrangement suggest a Middle Eastern origin, as its European counterparts tended to depict recognizable natural objects, such as exotic scenes, within the natural geometric shapes of the boteh. The orientation of the images as well as the vivacity of certain flowers in opposition to their counterparts suggests a link to the original ornamental Indian symbol of fertility (Moriarty).

Only one section of the shawl seems to have been affected by something other than the natural elements or the constitution of its cleanser. Perhaps a beverage of sorts had been set down upon it and leaked, creating a slight spherical stain. This unnatural treatment of an object of such great value merely lends credence to the idea that the Beach family used this shawl for more than just a fashionable addition.