IT is nearly two hundred years old, and has to be handed with great care. The Paisley pattern shawl is carefully brought out from its temperature- and humidity-controlled store at the town's museum, gently unfurled and placed upon a stand, then photographed, then replaced.

It is part of an exhausting process in which some 1,200 Paisley Pattern shawls are, one by one, being photographed and digitised. The £40,000 project started on May 6 last year and is expected to be wrapped up by June 3.

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Pictured are museum staff Carol Craig, left and Pam Logue pictured with a Paisley pattern shawl dating from c.1820   Photograph by Colin Mearns

 

The town's shawl collection, mostly made from cotton and wool, is deemed to be of national significance to Scotland.

Paisley is bidding for UK City of Culture status in 2021 and has also announced £56.7 million plans to turn the museum into an international-class destination based on the town’s textile history.

The funding for the digitisation project came from Museums Galleries Scotland's Recognition Fund.

David Weir, Heritage Co-ordinator at Renfrewshire Leisure, said: "At the last count we have digitised 1,013 shawls and have digitised 31 pattern sample books, which actually equates to 2,110 pages. Pattern books come in all shapes and sizes - some could be just 20 pages, others 200. These books are what the shawl manufacturers would reach for when someone asked for a pattern, and in many ways they are as important as the shawls themselves."

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The sheer popularity of the Paisley shawls in the 19th century helped to turn the town into a global brand and ushered in an era of prosperity. Queen Victoria was once persuaded to wear one, which gave the trade a healthy boost.

Mr Weir said: "The shawl trade started in 1805 and lasted until the 1880s. Within that entire period there were various highs and lows, and a lot of that was linked to the fashions of the time. If people did not want shawls then clearly it was more difficult for the weavers to make a living. The advent of printed shawls, in which patterns were printed onto cloth, also had an impact on the weaving trade. But there is no underestimating the importance of the shawl trade to Paisley. The weavers here were technically more adept than many others. There were larger weaving colonies in Glasgow and Edinburgh but Paisley weavers' technical ability was much higher, because of the sheer complexity of the work they took on."

A key aim of the digitisation project is to help conserve the shawl collection. Too much exposure to natural light could affect the fabrics' colour balance, while the actual fabric could be damaged by repeated handling. "Should anyone come to see the shawls or pattern books," said Mr Weir, "they can look first at the digitised image and identity exactly what they are looking for, thus minimising physical interaction with the actual objects."

The photography is being done by information officers Pamela Logue and Carol Craig. Said Ms Logue: "We've been shooting the shawls in a space in the ceramics gallery in the museum. We use a lighting rig to illuminate the fabrics, and the camera is linked to a laptop. The photographs go straight to that, which means that one of us can check that the focus, colour and lighting are all correct while the other operates the camera. Details of each shawl are appended to each photograph.

Ms Craig added: "Some of the shawls are really fragile and they have to be handled with great care. The idea behind the digitisation is hopefully that it will mean that the fabrics will not have to be handled so much in the future."

Both take the view that it was a highly interesting project. "We both feel privileged to be able to view this collection at first hand, to see some of the real treasures in this collection. It has been a real education for us."

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