In English, the common droplet-shaped motif found on Kashmir shawls is named after the Scottish town Paisley, which became famous for its imitation shawls in the first half of the 19th century. Locally, it is called boteh (Persian: بوته ; meaning “shrub”) or buta in the Indian subcontinent. Elsewhere on Object of the Day, Deputy Curatorial Director and Head of Textiles Matilda Mcquaid has analyzed the paisley as a metaphor for the tree of life. While boteh/paisley is a timeless design, the legacy of Kashmir’s shawl trade emerges from a historical and political context.
The Kashmir shawl in Cooper Hewitt’s collection features elongated boteh forms and is dated early 19th century. Its technique is twill tapestry, also known as kani, which is a handwoven technique designed on a draw loom. Kani shawls require masterful skill and often multiple weavers. With three weavers, a simple shawl can take three months while a complicated design can take over a year.
Prior to European consumption of luxury Indian textiles, Kashmir shawls were popular purchases among the nobility of the Safavid, Zand, and Qajar dynasties in Iran, and the Mughal court in northern India. Since the 16th century, emperors gifted shawls to important political leaders as “robes of honor” or khel’at. They also used shawl cloth to pay allowances for their followers and to reward allies. The last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah, in the decline of the empire, was unable to afford artisanal textiles and instead presented British visitors with cheap pieces of fabric.
Indo-Iranian trade routes encouraged cross-cultural influence among weavers, for example, Kashmiri products competed with Kerman artisans for Iranian consumption and had to be stylized accordingly. Likewise, Kashmiri products and the Kashmiri shawl trade changed with the advent of British economic influence, industrial machinery, and imperial rule. But influence moved in the opposite direction as well. Kashmir shawls were so commercially successful in Britain that the British textile industry began to copy their designs and technology. The British attempted to import pashm (unwoven goat hair or “shawl wool”) and the animals that produced it, while artisans experimented with fiber blends to reproduce the softness and warmth of the Kashmiri shawl cloth. Within Britain, weavers in Paisley began to dominate the imitation shawl market by the 1820’s. France had its own imitation industry and shawls made in Kashmir still had a market in Asia and Europe. By the 1870’s, however, European production began to replace shawls woven by indigenous Kashmiris. While machine-woven shawls were worn, Kashmir shawls became pieces of interior design, draped over pianos, etc., to show off the masterful weaving.
Shahzeen Nasim is a summer 2016 Peter Krueger intern in Cooper Hewitt’s Textiles Department. She has a BA in English Literature from Haverford College, Haverford, PA.
Chandra, Moti. 1989 . Kashmir Shawls. In Handwoven Fabrics of India, ed. Jasleen Dhamija and Jyotindra Jain. Ahmedabad, India: Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd.
Maskiell, Michelle. “Consuming Kashmir: Shawls and Empires, 1500-2000.” Journal of World History 13, no. 1 (2002): 27-65. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20078943.