Ancient Babylon is recognized to be one place of origin of the paisley form. Another opinion, expressed by Sam Willis in the 2016 BBC TV series The Silk Road, is that the symbol originated from the city of Yazd in Iran. In Yazd originates the weaving of the traditional fabric called a termeh, a cloth made of silk and wool which often included the paisley (boteh) form. Another common theory is that it originated in Persia 200-650 AD during the rule of the Sassanians empire.
One of the nicknames for paisley shapes since the 18th century, especially by American quilt makers, was “Persian pickles”.
The symbol can be best described as a similar shape to a curving teardrop or a kidney. The symbol was called boteh (the Persian word for shrub or cluster of leaves) which is visually a combination of a spray of floral elements and a cypress tree. Centuries later the shape was called Buta almond or bud – the national symbol of Azerbaijan to this day. It could also be an adaptation of the yin-yang symbol used in ancient Chinese medicine and philosophy.
Many different cultures have used the paisley symbol and consider it to represent many objects including a cashew fruit, a mango or a sprouting date palm, an Indian symbol of fertility. The symbol’s shape varies dramatically in different countries from an Indian pinecone to a Russian cucumber.
Paisleys also have their place in Celtic tradition. Before the Roman empire’s influence prevailed in Britain, Celtic patterns were used on many highly-decorated metal objects. The Desborough Mirror , discovered at an archaeological excavation in Northamptonshire in 1908, was made in the Iran Age period in Britain around 50BC to AD50.
The paisley pattern evolved mainly in The Kingdom of Kashmir. During Mughal Emperor Akbar’s reign (1556–1605), shawl-weaving production increased dramatically. It’s weavers absorbing influences coming across the borders from nearby China, Middle East and India. Woven paisley shawls were mainly worn by men for ceremonies. These early shawls did not display the paisley shape as we know it today but a curving flower with leaves and a stem, the roots of which have striking similarities to Chinese calligraphy. The way in which symbols from different cultures appear in the development of the paisley pattern show how weavers translated artistic influences from imported ceramics, documents, fabrics into their own designs.
The East India Company imported paisley shawls (adapted from the Persian ” shal’) from Kashmir and Persia to Europe in large quantities from around 1800. The designs were specifically tailored to cater for each regions particular tastes. The designs might depict exotic scenes of people on elephants riding past palm trees. For the Middle Eastern customers, the curved geometric paisley shape as we know it today was widely used. This was partly due to the Islamic preference not to depict recognisable natural objects.