Is paisley a design? Or a Scottish town? Or simply the Indian mango motif (ambi), found everywhere—from Punjabi juttis and designer suits to kani shawls from Kashmir and traditional Banarasi or Kanjeevaram saris. Call it what you will, buta, ambi, mango or paisley, the answer is that it’s a bit of everything.
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The word boteh or buta is of Persian origin and the mango-like shape you see today comes from years of evolution. The original Persian buta is thought to have been a representation of a floral spray combined with the Cyprus tree, a Zoroastrian symbol of life and eternity. It is a popular motif in Iran and South and Central Asian countries, including, of course, India.
In the late 1940s, John Irwin, the historian and keeper of the Indian section at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, traced the development of the buta from the Mughal period to the British era. In the late 17th century, the motif was a slender and curved flowering plant inspired by Persian design. By the early 18th century, it had become one filled with flowers. Hence the name buta. It was not until the middle of the 18th century that the outline began turning into a more rigid form that was referred to as the cone or the pine in the West. Half a century later, it lost its naturalistic floral design and became a formal cone with a bent edge on top. It had acquired the shape that we recognise today as ambi, or paisley.
By the time Kashmiri shawls made their way to the West, in the 18th-19th centuries, the ambi pattern had become synonymous with them. The pattern now acquired prominence in Europe. European portraits of women draped in shawls with intricate patterns have become an important source of study.
By the early 19th century, kani-shawl weaving in Kashmir had become so complicated and laborious, in design and colours, that it could take up to 18 months to weave one piece. Demand in Europe was outstripping supply. This, in effect, led to the development of a European industry that could copy the Kashmiri shawls in a very short time.
Britain was ahead of France in attempting to replicate the Kashmiri shawl. Norwich and Edinburgh, the pioneering centres, had been attempting to make Kashmir-like shawls since the 1780s, using silk warp and woollen weft.
However, the first centre successful in making close copies of the Kashmiri designs was the Scottish town of Paisley. By 1812, Paisley weavers had successfully made a device called ten-box-lay’s, which enabled five shuttles simultaneously, allowing for the weaving of multicoloured patterns. So, five colours could be woven at the same time.
Paisley weavers would send agents to London to copy the designs arriving from India. Within eight days, the imitations would be ready for sale. The Paisleys were priced at 12 pounds, while the originals from India could be as expensive as 300 pounds. European shawls, generically referred to as Paisleys, were cheaper—they used fewer colours, and the process was mechanised.
From this point on, the English term for the motif became paisley. In due course, British manufacturing was overtaken by France, which developed the Jacquard loom in the third quarter of the 19th century. Centres mushroomed in Lyon, Vienna, Geneva and Paris.
The design has stood the test of time. In modern times, The Beatles went “paisley mad” in their East-influenced phase. John Lennon’s Rolls-Royce had paisley painted on it. Designers like Saint Laurent, Burberry, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, and Yves Saint Laurent have incorporated paisley in their designs.
It is testimony to the beauty of paisley, ambi or buta, that it continues to be reinvented time and again to suit the demands of fashion and style.
The Textile Trail is a limited series that attempts to document the evolution of better- and lesser-known textiles and prints.
Jasvinder Kaur is a textile historian, researcher and author of Influences Of The British Raj On The Attire And Textiles Of Punjab.
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