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Shawls ‘most feminine and graceful’

The Empress Josephine did nothing by half-measures. She was so mad about roses, she had more than 250 varieties in her garden at Malmaison, her collection of jewelry is reputed to have been larger and more magnificent than that of any other queen and she was such a devoted collector of the “new” fashion, the Indian shawl, she owned hundreds of them, bought at such fantastic cost that it is said Napoleon finally had to step in and forbid her to buy any more.

In this cold, cold winter, it’s hard to not sympathize with Josephine and her insatiable appetite for the luxurious warmth of a cashmere shawl. And who could blame her for taking up the newest and most glamorous fashion accessory? After all, despite his misgivings at the enormous sums Josephine spent on them, it was her husband, Napoleon, who introduced them to Europe when he brought Indian shawls back to France after his Egyptian campaign at the end of the 1790s.

They were known as Kashmir shawls, after the region in northern India where they had been woven since the 15th century. Kashmiri weavers imported fleece from the mountain goats, which thrive in the cold, high Himalayan mountains of Tibet. The fleece was, and still is, known as pashmina (from the Persian pashm or wool) and the best fleece produced such fine wool, shawls woven from it were often called “ring shawls,” as they were so delicate and filmy, they could be pulled through a wedding ring.

The Kashmir shawls that arrived in Europe in the late 18th century were usually long rather than square. Typically measuring about 10 by five feet, they were the ideal complement to the slim empire-line gowns of the period. They were woven entirely by hand, usually in the traditional colours of cream, blue and deep red. Shawls generally had a deep border decorated with the traditional boteh or teardrop shape, the outline of which was filled in with a single, large flower motif or several smaller ones. The centre panel of the shawl was either left plain or filled with a tiny repeat pattern.

Despite their cost (an average of between $8,000 and $10,000 in today’s currency) and relative scarcity, the mania for Kashmir shawls spread rapidly and demand soon overtook supply. Shawls in the Kashmir style began to be produced in several European centres, like Lyon in France, Norwich in England, Vienna in Austria and, perhaps best known of all, Paisley in Scotland. By the early 1800s, the Jacquard loom had revolutionized the weaving industry, replacing manual labour with punched cards to raise the warp threads, which set the pattern of a woven textile. Weavers in Paisley were quick to take advantage of the new technology and the town became the pre-eminent centre for shawl production.

Pure cashmere was very expensive, so it was combined with other grades of wool or silk, and while the traditional Kashmir colours and patterns were imitated and beautiful shawls were made, somehow they seem to have lost a bit in translation en route to Paisley. With the introduction of aniline or chemical dyes in the 1850s, new colours, like true scarlet, mauve and a bright, pale blue, became popular. So dominant was the town of Paisley in the 19th century shawl industry, virtually all patterned shawls in the Kashmiri style became known as Paisley shawls, no matter where they were made, and the original teardrop motif became known, as it is today, as paisley.

By the 1840s, women’s dresses had changed dramatically and the tight bodice and bell-shaped skirt, which we think of as typically Victorian, had come into style. Square shawls, like the one shown on the left in the photo, were much more suited to the new style and were worn folded in a triangle. An all-over pattern, without a central plain panel, was better suited to the square shawl and, as you can see in the photograph, the elements of the design often combined large and small motifs in a random pattern rather than the earlier, more geometric design. By the 1860s, as skirts reached huge dimensions, shawls of up to 16 square feet were not uncommon.

The second shawl in the photograph is known variously as a Canton shawl, a Spanish shawl, a Manila shawl or a piano shawl. These beautifully embroidered silk shawls, with their deep, knotted silk fringes, first became popular in the 1830s and remained a fashionable item of dress into the 1890s.

They were made in Canton, China, of the lustrous Chinese silk known as crêpe de chine, and while they were produced in many colours, white, ivory and black were most common. The silk is covered with double-sided embroidery in silk thread, which was worked by two embroiderers working on either side of a shawl mounted in a frame. The needle was pushed through the silk by one embroiderer and taken up on the other side by another.

In May 1860, Godey’s Lady’s Book commented the “china crape shawls are truly elegant” and deemed the fashion for white ones “chaste and beautiful.” The shawls were almost always about five square feet and were often worn with evening gowns, when even the finest cashmere would not be acceptable.

The terms Manila shawl or Spanish shawl came about because those silk shawls were brought to Spain, through the Port of Seville, by traders from Manila who acquired them in China. They were fashionable with everyone from grand ladies to the women who worked in the tobacco factories and they became the signature accessory for flamenco dancers, who loved them because they flew around their bodies as they danced. Flamenco dancers still wear the manto de Manila and modern ones of superb quality are now made in Seville.

The shawl in the photograph dates to the 1890s, a time when shawls became less popular as an article of clothing and more popular as an item of decor. The Edwardian love of Asian-inspired decoration and propensity for luxurious, feminine interiors gave these beautiful shawls a new life draped over the backs of chairs, the tops of mirrors and, yes, the piano, where the embroidery was particularly well displayed.

The third shawl, at the right of the photograph, is made of silk devoré velvet. Velvet has been woven since the 14th century in a complex process requiring a special double loom, which allows the basic weave, the pile and any pattern to be created all at once. Even after the invention of the mechanized loom, velvet remained an expensive and complicated fabric to produce. A devoré velvet (from the French for devour) is one where the velvet pile is removed from certain areas to create a pattern that appears to float on top of the silk chiffon ground. The process was invented in 1920 when experiments revealed a solution of sodium hydrogen sulphate could be applied to silk velvet, removing the pile, but not damaging the ground. The fabric was particularly popular in the 1920s and 1930s, as it is soft and fluid, drapes beautifully and suited the styles of the period.

Beautiful antique shawls are highly collectible, with prices ranging from the staggering for an 18th-century Kashmir example to the much more approachable for later ones. Textiles are fragile, so examine them very carefully for damages, but if an antique shawl is in good condition, there is no reason not to wear it occasionally, for, as it was said when they were first introduced, they are the “single garment capable of appearing the most feminine and graceful in the world.”

Gay Guthrie has an extensive background in antiques and the decorative arts. She can be reached at [email protected]

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