Monday, April 19, 2010

Persian Pickles and Shawl Prints

Quilt block with a paisley print on the right,
about 1875

Ask a quilter today to give you a name for a paisley print and she might tell you it’s a Persian Pickle, a name with a supposedly long etymology— but it’s all fiction. The earliest source I found for the name is Sandra Dallas’s 1995 novel The Persian Pickle Club about a quilting group in Kansas during the Great Depression. They took their name from a bolt of paisley fabric.

I did a digital search for the words "Persian Pickle" in the Google books database of print material from the 19th century and found nothing with those two words linked together. Doing a search for references after 1900 found lots of hits but they all had to do with Dallas’s book, which is quite popular.

Here's the only 19th-century reference with the words Persian and Pickle close-by. It's from an 1874 play, called Mont Blanc: A Comedy in Three Acts by Eugène Labiche and Henry Mayhew. The reference seems to have to do with a brand of pickles and how to advertise it.

CHIRPEY," said I to myself when the brilliant idea first flashed upon me, " you're the proud inventor of a delicious new condiment—christened—after a long series of sleepless nights—' THE SHAH'S DELIGHT, or, Persian Persuasive Pickle.' But," said I, " nothing's done now-a-days, Chirpey, without advertising and puffing… Chirpey ! you be off at once and put up a poster of your delicious ' Persuasive Pickles' on the summit of Mont Blanc so that the eyes of Europe may be upon it."…. (he lets the end of the roller drop down over the chair~back, so as to expose to the audience a large coloured placard, representing the SHAH OF PERSIA seated cross-legged devouring pickles, and with the words " THE SHAH'S DELIGHT " printed in large letters underneath it.

That’s the thing about engaging fiction, like The Persian Pickle Club—
it can make you believe it’s all very real.

Wool paisley shawl, machine woven between 1860-1890

Woman in Paisley shawl about 1875

What might a 19th-century quiltmaker call a design in the tear-shaped paisley cone? The manufacturers referred to them as Cashmere prints or shawl prints, after the Cashmere shawls made in India. These hand-woven Kashmiri shawls were reproduced on mecahnical looms in Scotland, particularly in the town of Paisley, which gave its name to the design.

The scrap of fabric above is the document print for the reproduction paisley in my Moda collection called Civil War Homefront. Those little wiggly lines around the "paisley" are supposed to imitate a woven design in a printed cotton. Shawl prints were all the rage about 1860-1890.


  1. I love Paisley fabrics. They just add so much character to my quilts. I remember Paisley from back in the 60's when it was popular then. And more recently as Kasmire.

  2. Always on the look out for a good paisley.
    I have a question for you. How did repro fabric get to be so brown. Many quilts made locally at least are so brown. I know the palate was more limited, but our foremothers loved color.
    In antique quilt I have see in person and in books, brown was used but the backgrounds were muslin and it didn't become so brown with age.
    Many of these old quilts are quite lively.
    Is this a function of the market and what quilters want? If reproducing a quilt why would you want it to mush together into brown, brown, brown. Maybe, I am crazy, but I think early to mid 19th century would not like the "deadness" of these colors.

  3. I've never heard of Persian Pickle, although I love paisleys. Thanks for the wonderful information.

  4. Interesting. I wonder where Sandra Dallas got the term? Thanks again.

  5. For as long as I can remember, I have loved paisleys.

    On another note, a recent post "Another Find in Velma's Stash" on my blog, got me to thinking about what to do with that discovery. Do you have any suggestions?

  6. I never knew where the term paisley came from! Thank you for the great information.

  7. I love using paisleys in my quilts. Loved learning more about them.


  8. I love paisleys and it is good to see we are getting more and more available. Persian Pickle would be a good name for a quilt?

  9. I love Paisley fabric Barbara. I also really enjoyed the Persian Pickle Club book. Thanks for the information about paisleys.

  10. My mother was a big paisley fan and had many iterations in their fabric line. I am not sure I like them myself but they do remind me of my parents and their company. Thanks for the memories!

  11. Thank you, Barbara
    Funny, but paisley pattern has always been called "gherkins" in Russian. Sometimes (I guess to distinguish them from vegetables) Turkish or Indian or Persian gherkins. In the last couple of years, with the growing popularity of patchwork the borrowed word "paisley" became popular.

  12. Persian pickles has a very long history. It was not created by author Dallas.
    Wiki paisley. It has also been called Welsh Pears.

  13. @Lisa Kerns:Wikipedia quotes Dallas as source for "Persian Picles". Where do I find the "very long history"?

  14. When I read Sandra Dallas' book in 1995, I asked my grandmother (1902- 2001)about Persian Pickle prints. As she lived in Kansas during that time. She went straight to her trunk and pulled out a paisley shawl which she gave me!