A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What's the origin of the paisley design?

November 4, 1988

Dear Cecil:

What is the origin of the design known as "paisley"? Most patterns have some basis in nature, such as flower patterns, leaves, etc. A paisley looks like some sort of amoeba. What is a paisley supposed to be and how did it get that way?

Cecil replies:

You probably think paisley originated at the same time as the Beatles, Peter Max, and the Summer of Love. Not so. Paisley is actually an ornate pattern that was commonly used for 19th-century shawls manufactured in the town of Paisley, a textile center in Scotland. The Scots stole the idea from similarly patterned cashmere shawls made in Kashmir from goat fleece (cashmere-Kashmir, get it?), which began to be imported from India around 1800. The traditional explanation for the commalike paisley motif is that it's a pine cone, but if so it's the damnedest pine cone I ever saw. Textile historian Martin Hardingham has a better idea; he says it's "more directly identifiable with the cashew fruit and seed pod which has been a symbol of fertility for thousands of years." Ergo, sex is at the bottom of it. My mother always suspected as much.

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