The paisley prints of Alsace, France: 1800-1870

Jean Francois Keller

The English word “cashmere” denotes both the downy winter wool of a species of goat and the incredibly soft shawls woven from it. In French “cachemire” came in the nineteenth century to denote a type of textile design known in English as paisley. Made up of a limited number of elements and subject to constant evolution, paisleys were printed on cotton and woolen cloth with particular distinction in the Alsace region of France beginning about 1800.(1) With pardonable pride a French commentator wrote of the 1851 Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London:

The superiority of our shawls, compared with similar products from other nations, is so obvious that a casual glance at the Universal Exhibition is sufficient for confirmation. We are proud to say we have no rival as regards fancy items of figures or printed stuffs.(2)

From the beginning, printed paisleys were used for various fashion accessories, such as neckerchiefs and kerchiefs, but by about 1830 they had become linked almost exclusively with the shawl, from which they had originally been derived. The first shawls with paisley designs were woven of cashmere in India and appeared in England at the end of the eighteenth century.(3) Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign of 1798-1799 was the catalyst that launched the fashion in France, and by the time of her death in 1814, his wife Josephine owned nearly sixty cashmere shawls.(4) Soon the Indian industry could not keep up with the demand and European industrialists began to make exquisite, costly woven examples, most notably in Paris and Lyon, France, and in Paisley, Scotland. The textile printers in Alsace, also seeing the possibilities of the new style, concentrated their efforts on the novel element of the paisley design, known in India as the boteh (in France as the palmette and in English variously as the flame; spearhead, pine, or pine-cone motif).

The motif was adapted with style and elegance during the first quarter of the nineteenth century in France. Before 1830 it appeared mainly on square printed cotton kerchiefs (mouchoirs schals), but by the 1840s, the Alsatian textile printers increasingly turned to woolen shawls. The printed shawls were esteemed throughout the industrial world, particularly by British textile printers, who were talented and thus dangerous competitors. The Alsatian firms of Nicolas Koechlin, Hofer-Grosjean, and Thierry-Mieg, all of Mulhouse, contributed to the renown of the printed paisley industry.

European textile printing techniques had developed rather slowly until the end of the eighteenth century, when they were spurred by two important discoveries: lapis and Turkey red, both of which contributed particularly to the evolution of paisley printed cottons. Lapis, although it takes its name from the stone lapis lazuli and covers a fairly broad range of shades of blue, refers in this context to a technical process. In execution, a relief-carved wood block was used to print certain substances on the cloth that simultaneously resisted penetration by indigo and acted as a mordant to madder, binding it strongly to the fabric. Successive dye baths, first in indigo, then in madder, set the colors and gave the so-called lapis prints their unique brilliance (see Pl. IV).

It seems that the first trials with the lapis technique were carried out in England in 1808, although they were limited to printing orangish red designs on a blue ground.(5) Writing half a century later, a French chemist described the results as “a shapeless swatch of a very dirty blue on which madder orange designs are perfectly framed in the blue ground.”(6) Happily, these first experiments have survived (see Pl. II), their primitive appearance providing a measure of the Alsatian printers’ ability to imitate and perfect the technique. Soehnee l’Ainee et Cie. (1796-1818) of Munster, France, first marketed English lapis goods and then became the first Alsatian company to produce them.

The key figure in the industrial development of the lapis technique was the Mulhouse chemist Daniel Koechlin-Schouch. As early as 1809 he achieved a very lively red known as fancy lapis (lapis fiche), which rapidly caught on for the mouchoirs schals. Later improvements broadened the palette to include white, then green, and finally yellow. Mulhouse and its manufactories remained the leaders in fancy lapis production until the 1830s, by which time square printed kerchiefs had lost their dominant position. However, the lapis technique was not abandoned. In the second half of the century it was still used in Toulouse, France;(7) Moscow; and Glarus, Switzerland. Production included “kerchiefs, shawls, and dressing-gowns in the lapis style, with fancy paisley designs, which were sold chiefly in Persia [now Iran] and around Constantinople [now Istanbul].”(8)

The Turkey red (rouge turc or rouge Andrinople) printing process was one of the greatest successes of the Mulhouse textile industry. A very old resist process that originated in India, it was imported into the Rouen region of Normandy, France, by Greek craftsmen in the mid-eighteenth century and was there perfected, becoming an important factor in the development of the cotton prints known as rouenneries.

However, it was in Alsace that the Turkey red process was most fruitfully used in both dyeing and printing. Like lapis, the Turkey red process involved substances that served the dual function of resisting and fixing different colors, but in a complex manner centered on the madder dye bath.(9) In 1854 a French textile historian wrote, “One of the most beautiful results obtained from madder was the red ground merino on which botch were printed in black. It was marketed in 1810 by Nicolas Koechlin et Freres”(10) (see Pl. V). In this case “merino” refers to a type of cotton fabric often used for Turkey red printing.

Once again Daniel Koechlin-Schouch ensured the success of the process, perfecting resist printing on a red ground using white, blue, and other colors for the design. The new goods printed with paisley designs using this technique were called fancy merinos (merinos riches), and included handkerchiefs, shawls, and wall hangings, as well as bolts of cloth (see Pl. VI). Fancy merinos were quite popular for nearly a quarter of a century and became the specialty of Thierry-Mieg, which displayed them when Charles X, the French king, visited Mulhouse in 1828. According to a report of the time,

what above all deserved to catch the attention of connoisseurs, were the 6/4 handkerchiefs with grounds of Adrinople Red and decorated with several colors giving the effect of cashmere with surprising verisimilitude and equal to the best of this sort of production.(11)

Turkey red cotton prints gradually lost favor in France and during the 1840s were phased out except at Steiner de Ribeauville (founded in 1839) in Ribeauville, which exhibited examples at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London. The textile also remained an export item in England, Switzerland, Austria, and Russia.

As Turkey red cotton prints went out of fashion, they were replaced by paisley prints on wool, which were perfect imitations of the woven paisleys, and like them, were intended for a wealthier market than the cotton paisleys.(12) At first the dyes were fixed by ironing the cloth, which created bright colors but ones that did not hold up well to washing (see Pl. IX). The first attempts at fixing dyes on woolen cloth using steam are said to have been carried out in England in the second haft of the eighteenth century by an “English cassimere printer,”(13) but it was only toward 1810 that Dollfus-Mieg et Cie. of Mulhouse made the first woolen prints “of fancy design, imitating cashmere shawls.”(14) About 1815 irons were replaced by steam. According to one version, Georges Dollfus, a Mulhouse textile printer, was responsible for this innovation.(15) However, the inventor was probably a certain Loffet from Colmar, north of Mulhouse, who won a silver medal in 1819 “for his display of printed shawls on merino cloth, with floral and paisley designs, the colors of which, fixed by steam, were wonderfully brilliant.”(16) French textile manufactories in Paris, Beauvais, and Amiens were also fixing dyes on printed woolens with steam, and can lay equal claim to this innovation. In any event, Loffet later sold his process at a nice profit to the English who, as Daniel Koechlin-Schouch noted with amusement, seemed to have forgotten that they had reputedly been the first to use steam.(17)

Paisley shawls printed on various weaves of wool(18) (see Pls. VIII, VIIIa, X) became increasingly popular owing to the higher quality of their designs and their affordability relative to woven paisley snawls.(19) The fine wools came chiefly from Picardy in northern France.(20) Shawls with more elaborate designs were exported to Spain and Brazil, while others, printed on gauze-like wool (barege) were sold in England. In 1863 the Civil War led to a rise in the price of American cotton, which was much used by the Alsatian textile printers, and this too worked in favor of the switch to wool.(21)

As a top of the line item, using a large number of colors, the woolen shawls were mostly hand printed using wood blocks carved in relief, and their fringes were shredded and combed by hand. The delicacy of the motifs and the borders and the complexity of the designs frequently called for casting some of the components of the pattern in metal and inserting them into the wooden printing blocks or rollers.(22)

Artists designing for Alsatian printworks, such as Louis Joseph Alphonse Malaine (1782-1858), used “hatchings and parallel lines”(23) to achieve virtuoso trompe l’oeil effects imitating woven patterns. The extraordinary quality of the designs achieved by the Alsatian manufacturers can be grasped from this description of the products of the Thierry-Mieg printworks:

One cannot imagine the beauty of these wool prints; those that imitate cashmere are true facsimilies of the best weaves; one has to look very closely to be certain that one is not facing a true cashmere weave.(24)

Some designs were so refined and admired that English competitors were known on occasion to purchase the printing blocks for discontinued Alsatian patterns.(25)

Once adopted, paisley designs evolved quickly. Until the 1830s they were based exclusively on the squat boteh, which had been lifted from the rich ornamental repertory of Indian craftsmen, although by the time the boteh reached Europe it had already evolved beyond any recognizable botanical model – even a very stylized one – and into an abstract shape.(26) The European printers first appropriated this abstract design, using their decorative repertory of flowers, leaves, and branches to fill in the boteh shape, and in so doing melded the abstract and the naturalistic in a way that was unique to paisley (see Pl. XI). At first the boteh remained fairly small and scattered on a solid-color ground, but they gradually lengthened into ever more complex undulations that filled the entire surface. In a surprising development in a century that showed an unprecedented fondness for naturalistic designs, particularly flowers in every guise, the floral elements in paisleys disappeared, and the boteh and ground were increasingly filled with dense patterns of rosettes, scrolls, whorls, stripes, and geometrical figures (see Pl. VII). Each element was created by tiny, colored dots set side by side like precious stones. The colors, dominated by warm, orangish yellows, enhanced the jewel-like nature of the designs, setting them off in the same way precious metals set off gem stones, and creating a kind of cloisonne effect (see Pls. III, XVI). The goods themselves partook of the same spirit partook of the same spirit: a paisley shawl served to enhanced a dress, and paisley motifs were often set near the collar, like necklaces, or around the hems or flounces of a dress (see Pls. XIV, XVII).

Paisleys are marked by a singular absence of spatial dimension, which is especially noticeable when one looks at a type of pattern that emerged about the middle of the nineteenth century: perhaps as a reaction to the over-all density of abstract designs, these designs combined paisley with naturalistic flowers (see Pl. XV).

Woven paisleys provided the principal inspiration for printed paisleys,(27) but the latter had to respond to different fashion swings. It seems most likely that the first cotton mouchoirs schals printed with simple boteh motifs were sold to a humble clientele, but the rich patterns being produced by the mid-nineteenth century were clearly geared to a more upscale market. Indeed, precisely because the printing process put paisleys within the reach of the rapidly growing middle class, the printed paisley industry had to keep up a brisk pace of change in order to satisfy the demands of its many customers.

Fashion being a relentless master, however, changes in taste and in the cut of women’s clothes led to a gradual decline of the paisley print. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 and the many upheavals that resulted from the annexation of Alsace to a united Germany gradually steered Alsatian textile printing to other types of designs.

An exhibition entitled Un Joyau Textile will be on view at Musee de l’Impression sur Etoffes in Mulhouse, France, from December 8 until November 1997. The exhibition reopens the museum, which has been undergoing renovation since 1994.

The Musee de l’Impression sur Etoffes is a repository for printed textiles of every description, from India prints to tee shirts, dating from the eighteenth century to the present. It includes the examples of textiles made in Mulhouse set aside since 1833 by the Societe Industrielle de Mulhouse and enhanced from the beginning with samples from all over the world. The textile archive (Service d’Utilisation des Documents) welcomes designers and manufacturers to its collection of more than three million swatches. A specialized library of some nine thousand volumes is open to scholars and students. In addition, the museum houses nearly fifty thousand document textiles.

1 The date of the beginning of the printed paisley industry is from Histoire Documentaire de la region de Mulhouse (Mulhouse, France, 1902), p. 397. It is supported by a drawing from the Haussmann printworks in Logelbach, near Colmar. For more about the Haussmann firm see “Une manufacture alsacienne,” Bulletin de la Societe Industrielle de Mulhouse, vol. 810 (1988).

2 Maxime Gaussen, Exposition Universelle de 1851. Travaux de la commission francaise sur l’industrie des nations: Industrie des chales et des tissus melanges, vol. 4, 15th jury (Pads, 1854), pp. 1-2.

3 For a general study of paisley shawls see Monique Levi-Strauss, Cachemires (Paris, 1987).

4 Ibid., p. 16.

5 Jean Francois Persoz, “Rapport sur les Expositions Universelles de 1851 et 1855,” Moniteur Scientifique, vol. 1 (1857), p. 369. Henri Lebert (‘Notice sur les developpements du dessin,” Revue d’Alsace, 1862, p. 15) ascribes the invention to a Parisian named Robert, working for Soehnee l’Ainee et Cie. (which later became Hartmann et Fils) in Munster, France, in 1803. However, this has never been confirmed.

6 Persoz, ‘Rapport sur les Expositions Universelles,” p. 360.

7 Jean Francois Persoz, “Rapport sur les expositions Universelles de 1851 et 1855,” Moniteur Scientifique, vol. 2 (1858). p. 825.

8 Jean Francois Persoz, Exposition Universelle de 1851. Travaux de la commission francaise sur l’industrie des nations: Impression et teinture, vol. 5, 18th jury (Paris, 1855), p. 36.

9 For more about Turkey red see Jacqueline Jacque, Andrinople: Le Rouge Magnifique (Musee de I’Impression sur Etoffes, Mulhouse, France, 1995).

10 Persoz, Exposition Universelle de 1851, p. 37.

11 “Rapport sur l’exposition des produits de l’industrie, a l’occasion de l’arrivee du Roi le 11 septembre 1928,” Bulletin de la Societe Industrielle de Mulhouse, vol. 2, no, 7 (1829), p. 144.

12 Charles Thierry-Mieg, “Rapport sur les forces materielles et morales de l’industrie du Haut-Rhin,” Bulletin de la Societe Industrielle de Mulhouse, vol. 32 (1862), p. 449.

13 “Rapport fait au nom du comite de chimie, par M. Daniel Koechlin-Schouch, sur la decouverte de l’impression sur etoffes de laine et de soie,” Bulletin de la Societe Industrielle de Mulhouse, vol. 31 (1833), p. 195. Cassimere (casimir) is a very fine fabric with a cotton warp and wool weft, the name of which may derive from Kashmir.

14 Ibid., p. 196.

15 The information is included on a drawing in the Musee de l’Impression sur Etoffes in Mulhouse.

16 “Rapport fait au nom du comite de chimie, par M. Daniel Koechlin-Schouch,” p. 198.

17 Ibid.

18 Among the types of woolen cloth used were thibet, schaly, mousseline de laine, satin weave, schaly satin, and the light twill known in French as cachemire d’Ecosse.

19 For example, in 1866-1867, the Grands Magasins du Louvre, where elegant Parisians shopped, had a shawl counter where printed paisley woolen shawls sold for 10 to 45 francs; Parisian woven paisley shawls for 70 to 200 francs; and Indian cashmeres up to 3,500 francs “and more” (“Catalogue des Grands Magasins du Louvre,” La Mode illustree, vol. 41 [1866], p. 331).

20 Turgan, Les Grandes Usines: Etudes industrielles en France et a l’etranger, vol. 3 (Paris, 1863), p. 242.

21 According to Jean Francois Persoz (Exposition Universelle de 1867, rapport du jury, Teinture et Impression vol. 7, sec. 2 [Paris, 1867], p. 339), “The considerable increase in the price of cotton, during the [Civil] war, and the ever expanding trade in foreign wools, encouraged a trend which had been obvious for many years already in our lands: the substitution of wool clothes for cotton ones. They stay cleaner, they are sturdier, they wash better. Some mixed fabrics offer special advantages for consumers.”

22 Known as block casting, this technique was used in block printing in France and England from 1838, but especially between 1840 and 1870. As the process was quick, inexpensive, and allowed careful detailing, it was perfectly suited to rapidly changing fashions. For more on block casting see J. Storey, “Cast Blocks,” in Monique Drosson, Du Burin au Laser: La gravure pour tissu du XVIIe siecle a nos jours (Musee de l’Impression sur Etoffes, 1990), pp. 112-125.

23 Lebert, “Notice sur les developpements du dessin,” p. 15.

24 Persoz, Exposition Universelle de 1867, p. 254.

25 Lebert, “Notice sur les developpements du dessin,” p. 16.

26 John Irwin (Shawls: A Study in Indo-European Influences [Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1955], pp. 11-13) has speculated on the evolution of the boteh, following the original floral design of the end of the seventeenth century as it gradually moved toward the abstract shape first used by European printers in the early nineteenth century.

27 Monique Levi-Strauss described the basic principles of the evolution of woven paisleys in Cachemires, especially pp. 192-193.

JEAN FRANCOIS KELLER is in charge of the textile archive at the Musee de l’Impression sur Etoffes in Mulhouse, France.

DENIS ROLAND is an assistant curator at the Musee de l’Impression sur Etoffes.

This article was translated from French by M. Eustace Erwin.

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