“Buta,” the design we in the West call “paisley” is a tear-drop shape with a pointed tail that curves over the belly of the tear drop.
Part of its history can be traced back to the Eneolithic Period in Azerbaijan, (2500-2000 BCE). Recently, the presumed oldest example of the paisley pattern was found in Nakhchivan, the capital of the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan.
This was described in an interview in 2017 with Fizza Guliyeva, Head of the Department of Decorative and Applied Arts of the Institute of Art, Language and Literature of Nakhchivan Department of Azerbaijan National Academy of Science. She said, “We can say that the most ancient example of the buta pattern over the world is on the clay trays that we found in Nakhchivan."
In the Azerbaijan tradition, it is worshipped “as a symbol of the divine fire.”
In Iran, formerly Persia, the paisley design is known as “boteh-jegheh.” Its history there dates to at least 200 AD. The design signified royal power and nobility. It was used in the regalia of Iranian royalty. (I know there is a huge difference in these dates of first use. Keep in mind that these are contiguous countries and the borders and names have fluctuated over the past 2500 years. These are the most accurate dates I could establish as of the writing on this article. If you have updated information, I'd be happy to update this essay.) India also has a long history of using the paisley pattern.
The history associated with the curved tear drop design in Iran was based on the tree of life and inspired by buds, pine cones, and palm fronds. It may have signified fertility or good fortune.
The design got its English name “Paisley” from the town of Paisley, Scotland. The town dates from the early medieval period and has a history of scholarship, mills, and textile production.
The invention of the Jacquard loom in 1801 revolutionized the weaving industry adding the capabilities of creating intricate patterns of various weaves, patterns, and curves as well as lettering. By the late 18th century, Paisley, Scotland became a global center for thread making and weaving. A major focus in the town was on the production of shawls featuring the paisley pattern.
The shawls of Paisley, Scotland became particularly popular in Europe and America. They were made of lightweight wool, generally cashmere (Kashmiri from India) and were often woven with incredibly intricate designs. Typically the colors used were rust or red, blues, cream and dark neutrals. (These are primarily the same colors used in the image shown above from Nakhchivan 2500 years ago.)
Adults and children seeking employment came from all over, descending on Paisley for jobs at the mills.
Paisley, a City Besieged by a Workers' Strike
Paisley, became a center for intense political uprisings. Workers and those fighter for workers’ rights, demanded representation for working-class people, many of whom were weavers in the shawl factories. The Paisley weavers’ strike of 1824 became a pivotal historic date in the community. As a result of the strike, the first trade union in Scotland was established.
In the Victorian era, the textile retailer, Liberty of London, became an early enthusiastic promoter of the paisley pattern. A youthful Queen Victoria (1819-1901) added a paisley shawl to her ensembles, which immediately increased the demand for the chic practical garment. Paisley shawls became a must-have fashion accessory for the cosmopolitan women
Contemporary Liberty Silk Paisley Jacquard Scarf, from its current online catalog.
Since the exportation of the paisley pattern to Europe, to the US, and beyond, artists such as john Singer Sargent have featured paisley patterns in their work. A cashmere shawl with a paisley pattern appears in several of Sargent’s paintings as a favorite textile prop for his female subjects lounging on sofas or on the sides of mountains. (More on this in an upcoming post).
Paisley has been used on bandanas for cowboys, and by designers such as Versace, Alexander McQueen, Yves Saint Laurent, and Diane von Furstenberg.
Here is an example from the Alexander McQueen Menswear collection, 2017.
Janis Joplin, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, The Beatles, and Oscar Wilde, also popularized this simple but ancient pattern.
I have always loved paisley design and frequently use an adaptation of it in my textile projects. Below is a work-in-progress from a pattern by Anita White of a paisley design in a rug hooking project.
“Paisley: The story of a classic bohemian print” by Lindsay Baker, November 6, 2017, is a short article by the BBC on paisley. Great images, several of which I've used in this article.
A collection of shawls at the Metropolitan Museum is an incredible source for inspiration of paisely patterns and garments.