Material question

pounds 4 or pounds 400? It doesn't matter what it costs, as long as it' s paisley. Photographs: Donna Francesca
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Paisley is a pattern that has the power to make grown men squirm. They are reminded of wardrobe horrors from their youth when paisley shirts with collars that flapped in the wind were all part of the uniform that went with long hair and pink flares. But paisley itself has a history that predates Sergeant Pepper and goes right back to prehistoric times. Before hippies tripped out in it, paisley prints were a symbol of elegance, hinting at the exoticism of the east.

As the name suggests, the garish, swirly, psychedelic print is named after Paisley in Scotland. Strangely enough, the print is no longer in production in Paisley itself. Only one small factory remains in the town, and the majority of the prints and weaves that have been used in the collections of designers such as Clements Ribeiro, Dries Van Noten and Ralph Lauren, the high street ranges of Biba (reworking old archives) and Warehouse, are now made in Italy.

All that remains in Paisley are the 900 examples that the Paisley Museum has been collecting since 1905.

The origins of the paisley design have been traced back to a prehistoric motif that was once used throughout Europe and Asia. According to Valerie Reilly, keeper of textiles at Paisley Museum, the familiar curved teardrop has been linked with the symbols for yin and yang, with Indian flowers, and with the ancient Babylonian motif for the growing shoot of the date- palm tree. The paisley design as we know it survived in India where it was woven into shawls in Kashmir in the 17th and 18th centuries. It came to Scotland by way of the East India Company which exported the shawls from Kashmir in the 1770s, when they cost the equivalent of an haute couture gown today.

To make the shawl more affordable, the tadpole pattern was copied and manufactured in Norwich and Edinburgh. It was not until the 19th century that the Kashmir design came to be produced in Paisley. The factories undercut everywhere else in the country and the name paisley, as it is now known everywhere from India to New York, stuck. Only the French continue to call the swirly pattern "kashmir".

Paisley prints stopped being used solely for shawls in the 1870s, when the bustle made the shawl look cumbersome.

From then, Liberty took up the cause and sold fabric on the roll. It has been popular ever since. These days you can buy it in cotton, silk or wool, with prices starting at pounds 12 per metre for cotton.

Clements Ribeiro picked up on paisley for their winter collection and blew it up to almost abstract proportions in bright, clashing colours. "We like the playfulness and the rhythm of the shape," says Inacio Ribeiro. "We wanted a print that was intoxicating and exotic. Paisley is unique in that it has so many different references, from Bohemian to hippy, and traditional British too. It's traditional and decadent at the same time."

If you miss buying a piece of Clements Ribeiro in the January sales, you can invest in a paisley garment from the spring/summer collection.

This time, the design comes in pale pastel colours, very evocative of the hallucinogenic Seventies.

Designer looks do not always mean designer prices, and there is a lot of Seventies paisley still hanging around in charity shops up and down the country. But, to avoid looking like some kind of sad, psychedelic throwback, just don't wear it with patchouli oil and beads in your hairn

The Paisley Museum and Art Galleries, High Street, Paisley, Renfrewshire, Scotland (0141-889 3151)

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