Napoleon, Opium, Wild Goats and Babylon: the story of that simple trippy Paisley Pattern
The paisley pattern can be found on anything from clothing to wrapping paper. It is a standard pattern that has always stood out to me since most standards, like polka dots, pin stripes or even Burberry's plaid, are relatively simple while paisley has a casual complexity to it.
The main element of Paisley is the distinct tear drop shape, called Boteh or Paisley pine, that is repeated and ornamented with patterns on the inside and around its perimeter. Paisley pines will sometimes be grouped together to form a tree or be connected by vines. The boteh can be small and squat (like the one below) or long and stretched out. Below is my best shot at a single boteh:
The boteh or Paisley pine
The history of the Paisley pattern is intertwined with the immense popularity of the shawl in Europe and Britain between 1790-1870. This popularity is said to have been kick started by Napoleon's wife Josephine who loved the hand woven Himalayan mountain goat wool shawls of Kashmir and owned hundreds of them. As these shawls, which bore variations of the motif which we think of as paisley, became popular the East India Company began to import them.
A Kashmir shawl took a couple years to make and were very expensive so cheaper imitations began to be produced in England and elsewhere in Europe and Russia. Paisley, Scotland, came to the forefront of the Kashmir shawl reproduction business and its name has stuck to the pattern. As loom technology progressed the shawls got cheaper and cheaper and eventually the shawl fad subsided but the boteh would remain a standard in western patterns.
So what the hell is the Paisley pine? That's the question that first got me interested in researching this. The boteh has been around for 2000 years in Europe and India. It can be traced back to ancient Babylon where the shape of the boteh "represent(s) the growing shoot of a date palm. The palm provided food, drink, clothing (woven fibers) and shelter, and so became regarded as 'The Tree of Life', with its growing shoot being gradually accepted as a fertility symbol".1