Paisley shawls in literature

As part of our decolonisation series, we take a closer look at the paisley pattern. Suchitra explores the representation of Indian shawls in literature, from Burns to Scott.

Written by: Suchitra Choudhury

The raging demand for authentic Indian shawls in the late eighteenth century kick-started a massive industry of their imitations. Paisley shawls, as they came to be known, were highly popular. Inevitably, they also started trickling into the imaginative literature of the period.

Written in 1790, Robert Burns’ famous poem Tam O’Shanter describes the young witch Nannie Dee dressed seductively in short skirt: a “cutty-sark, o' Paisley harn”.

Her cutty sark o' Paisley harn,
That while a lassie she had worn,
In longitude tho' sorely scanty,
It was her best, and she was vauntie.
Ah! little ken'd thy reverend grannie,
That sark she coft for her wee Nannie,
Wi' twa pund Scots ('twas a' her riches),
Wad ever grac'd a dance of witches!

Tam O’Shanter, Robert Burns (read it here)

The lines are memorable. Burns here charmingly celebrates Paisley’s long history of manufacture while keeping his eyes fully open to the indelicate brevity of the underskirt, bought as it was by Nannie’s devoted grandmother so many years ago. But the description also paves the way to cite an interesting real-life anecdote.

Burns was actually gifted a Paisley shawl by his music publisher and arranger George Thomson. I… sent him a Scoto-Indian shawl for Mrs. Burns,” Thomson wrote in an 1845 letter to Tait's Magazine. He clearly hastened to add, “… I freely confess [that these gifts] were more suited to my means than to the poet's deserts.”

This tone of defence, in fact, has a context. It is well-known that the publisher recompensed Burns ungenerously. In these circumstances it is acutely possible that, in hindsight, Thomson felt some remorse that perhaps an Indian shawl, rather than a cheaper imitation, might have served the occasion better. On a different plane, however, his use of the phrase “Scoto-Indian shawl” is significant. It shows clearly that although we are used to viewing Paisleys as being uniquely Scottish, their subcontinental origin was in fact a matter of common knowledge at the time.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of researching shawls is the way in which there seems to have been a sustained contradiction at the heart of the Paisley. For many, these bright wraps were cherished and valued possessions. But it is also a fact that, as cheaper products, they were frequently pooh-poohed and dismissed in certain quarters.

Sir Walter Scott’s works offer a wonderfully comprehensive example of this widespread contradiction. Scott describes the vogue for shawls in two very different works: St. Ronan's Well, a novel he published in 1823, and The Surgeon's Daughter, a shorter work written late in his career in 1827. In St. Ronan's Well, the laird of the village, John Mowbray gifts an Indian shawl (worth an eye-watering “fifty guineas”) to his sister Clara. Interestingly, Scott also tells us how John is delighted that the shawl “has been exceedingly admired, and every woman in the house longs to see it closer – they can hardly believe it’s genuine.”

As the novel progresses, however, we see that Scott is clearly critical of the Indian shawl’s exorbitant price. But he does not hesitate to denounce the Paisley shawl as a mediocre and inferior manufacture either. This is explicit as a member of the eponymous spa, Mrs Blower, praises her collection of imitation shawls. She opines: “There are braw shawls made at Paisley, that ye will scarce ken frae foreign,” [“There are great shawls made at Paisley that you would hardly distinguish from foreign”, translated by Nigel Leask].

The view does not go unnoticed. Peregrine Touchwood, a British “nabob” grown rich in India, responds by offering a lengthy description of authentic shawl-manufacture. He finally brings the exchange to a frosty close: “Not know Paisley shawls from India [shawls], madam, why, a blind man could tell by the slightest touch of his little finger…”

Given the strength of this criticism, it is surprising that Scott appears to change his view quite radically in the approaching years. Indeed, a wholehearted approval of the Paisley shawl seems to be firmly in place in The Surgeon's Daughter written a few years later. In this tropical-themed fiction, Scott depicts a lady wearing a “real” Cashmere. At one point we are told that she “threw all other topics out of the field, and from the genuine Indian she made a digression to the imitation shawls now made at Paisley out of real Thibet wool, not to be known from the actual Country shawl, except by some inimitable cross-stich in the border.”

The lady is certainly a champion of Paisley: “It is well,” she continues, “that there is some way of knowing a thing that cost fifty guineas from an article that is sold for five; but I venture to say that there is not one out of ten thousand that would understand the difference.” The high accolade is quickly taken up by the narrator, Chrystal Croftangry, who uses the same theme of shawls to explain his task of compiling an Eastern fiction. “Like the imitative operatives of Paisley,” he tells his listeners, “I have composed my tale by incorporating into the woof a little Thibet wool.”

Scott's description is fascinating, and it certainly made his readers laugh. But from a critical distance almost two centuries later, does it tell us anything specific about the industrial achievements of Scotland? And, crucially, does it in any way reveal Scott's attitude to the colonial empire in India?

A comparison between fiction-writing and factory production is obviously light-hearted and comic. Yet, if we observe carefully, there is an economic vision that holds the description together. Scott displays a modern, entrepreneurial image of Scotland in this account. In doing so, however, he also approves and celebrates the excessive way in which raw materials from India were brought over to serve and prosper the industrial “revolution.” The subcontinental history of the shawl captured in Scott's writing is thus attractive and striking, but it also inadvertently exposes the exploitative practices of the British Empire.

Like myriad other commodities in the nineteenth century, designs travelled fast and thick from one corner of the globe to another. In my next piece, I will talk about how the advent of the paisley pattern in the British art scene was not always admired or appreciated. Watch this space!

As we invite you to join us on the journey of decolonising our museum, we want to explain how we’re doing it and why it’s vital. Read about the start of this project here or follow #DecoloniseSDG on Twitter.

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