the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other authors

Woven shawls in novels by Elizabeth Gaskell

on March 5, 2018

Shawls designed in a pattern commonly known in Britain as paisley were by the 1850s an indispensable item of Victorian women’s wear. They were a marker of respectability as shown by the character of Esther in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, who dispenses with her prostitute’s attire to find a shawl at a pawnbrokers which is considered suitable attire. Poor women wore paisley shawls made from wool or cotton while hand woven shawls from Kashmir made from ‘several grades of hair from two or more species of Asian goat’ (Suzanne Daly, 246) were the preference of the prosperous middle classes.


In another novel by Elizabeth Gaskell North and South, shawls and scarves from India are inherited or handed down. Mrs Shaw gives her collection to her daughter Edith but due to her slight stature, Edith prefers to use them as picnic blankets. It is on Margaret that a shawl suits “as an empress wears her drapery”. Preference for handcrafted goods leaves Margaret at odds with Mr Thornton but by the end of the novel Margaret inherits land and marries him.


As paisley shawls are included in great classic work, why not include paisley print in contemporary fiction? Read my story ‘Paisley Shirt’ included in the collection of the same name to find out about its influence in my writing. Click here for more information on Amazon or if delivery times are off putting, try the Book Depository.

4 responses to “Woven shawls in novels by Elizabeth Gaskell

  1. Patsy says:

    Clothing used to say quite a lot about a person’s place in society. I suppose it still does to some extent, but it’s now far less clear cut.

  2. tammayauthor says:

    Very cool. I think William Makepeace Thackeray does kind of a satire on this idea of woven shawls, as I seem to recall this scene where a character who has a job in India brings Indian shawls to his sister and mother and they plunge into poverty and the mother is forced to sell the shawl. But the satire is that it’s the mother who puts a value on the shawl rather than the shawl having real value in and of itself.

    Tam May
    The Dream Book Blog

    • gailaldwin says:

      That’s interesting. I know there is mention of shawls in ‘Vanity Fair’ where Joseph Sedley returns from Bengal with a white cashmere shawl for his sister Amelia. As this novel is set in the early 1800s the plain shawl indicates that it was likely to be genuine as it predates the rush for patterned shawls (which could take 18 months to make – rather than the plain shawls which could be produced quickly). Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Tam May!

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