Paisley made textiles. And textiles made Paisley
The Paisley we know now was formed by the industrial revolution, which transformed a small market town into a thriving textile hub where hundreds of weavers threaded together the Paisley-patterned shawls which carried our name around the world.
The largesse of the mill owners helped fund a museum collection described as ‘internationally significant’ by visiting experts, and which includes the world’s finest collection of Paisley shawls.
Paisley's textile heritage
The first official record of weaving in Paisley is found in the Poll Tax Roll of 1695, which shows that out of a population of 1,129 there were 99 weavers and apprentices in the town.
The trade continued to grow and in 1702 the Incorporation of Weavers was founded.
With access to the English and colonial markets, following the Act of Union, the trade expanded rapidly. Paisley weavers developed a reputation for their ingenuity in making fine linen fabrics such as lawns and gauzes.
The successful introduction of silk gauze weaving in 1759 brought great prosperity to the town.
By 1781, there were 6,800 looms in Paisley, 2,000 weaving linen and 4, 800 weaving silk. In 1783/84 nearly two million yards of linen was produced locally.
Around 1784, the weaving of fine muslins began to replace silk weaving, which made patterned clothing more affordable to the general public. At the same time, the spinning of linen and cotton yarn increased rapidly.
In 1805, the weaving of Paisley shawls was introduced, eventually becoming the main product of the town. In 1834, over a million pounds worth of shawls were produced locally.
The Paisley shawl began as an attempt by European shawl manufacturers to imitate the rare and expensive Kashmir shawl, which was introduced to Europe during the second half of the eighteenth century and became a symbol of wealth and status among upper class women.
The Kashmir shawl featured intricate designs inserted by hand by Indian weavers, the most recognisable of which was a teardrop motif thought to be of Indo-Persian origin.
Imitating the Kashmir shawl on looms required an extremely high level of skill and technology and only a small number of weaving centres in Europe could meet the challenge.
Throughout the eighteenth century, Paisley weavers had developed a high level of expertise and technical skill in the production of fine silk gauzes and figured muslins and thus were well equipped to take on the weaving of the “imitation” shawls.
They continued to develop and improve their technology throughout the nineteenth century, making colourful, fashionable ‘Paisley’ shawls affordable and accessible across the world.
Origins of Paisley's thread mills
In the nineteenth century the textile industry in Paisley consisted of many different branches, including spinning, weaving, dying, printing, bleaching, loom making, starch making.
The two main branches of weaving and spinning continued to develop side-by-side.
Two of the local spinning firms, Coats and Clarks, specialised in the manufacture of sewing thread, which had no connection with the shawl trade.
When the shawl went out of fashion in the 1870s the weaving trade diminished rapidly while the thread making continued to expand.
In 1896, the two companies of Coats and Clark amalgamated and, through their global expansion, went on to become the biggest producer of sewing thread in the world.
The company continued to prosper and by the 1940s there were 10,000 workers in Paisley on their payroll.
At this time, the last handloom weaving company closed.
J&P Coats continued manufacturing sewing threads in Paisley until the 1990s when the mills finally closed.
Of course the story of Paisley’s history is also the story of Paisley’s people – from influential globe-trotters such as John Witherspoon (a signatory of the American Declaration of Independence) to Alexander Wilson (the father of American ornithology), and cultural figures like the town’s ‘weaver poet’ Robert Tannahill.
And one thing Paisley’s people have tended not to be is shy. Take the strong themes of thought and radicalism running through its history, shown by the role of the town – a hotbed of early trades unionism – at the centre of the Radical War of 1820.
That led then Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli to comment: ‘Keep your eye on Paisley’. Nearly 200 years on, we think that is still good advice.