All Wrapped Up in Finery: Virginia Campbell’s Shawl

Every object has its own chapter that makes the greater story of the Campbell family and the Museum remarkable. Although some of these chapters have been lost during the transition from a house to a museum, original objects continue to return “home” to the Campbell House more than 70 years after the last Campbell died. One extraordinary artifact associated with Virginia Campbell was donated this past summer: a shawl.

Portrait of Virginia Campbell circa 1882 showing the shawl draped over the chair.

Portrait of Virginia Campbell circa 1882 showing the shawl draped over the chair.A large nine-foot long shawl was donated by the family that purchased it from the Campbell estate auction in 1941. The unique textile is made from silk and wool and is believed to date from around 1840. It appears to be the shawl draped over a chair in the life-size portrait of Virginia Campbell hanging above the piano in the downstairs parlor.

Between the years 1770 and 1870, the most valuable thing in a women’s armoire was a Kashmir shawl. These textiles originated from Kashmir, a lush area in India. Documentation shows that woolen shawls were fashionable for Indian and Persian men and women centuries prior, but it was not until King Zayn-ul-Abidin, a 15th century leader of Kashmir, introduced Turkish weaving to the area, that Kashmir became noted for their textiles.

Made from the finest goat fleece, these shawls were hand-woven by a team of specialists. Looms were later introduced and the weaving process that could take years then only took a few months. Traditionally, flowering plants were the primary design on the shawls. In the early 18th century, these flowering plants morphed into encased flowers, and by the time Western European consumption of shawls began, morphed into the “buta” design. Meaning “flower,” the “buta” design is the characteristic tear drop with a bent tip design. This became known as the “pine” and the “cone,” in Western Europe, and the “paisley” in North America.

In the late 18th century, Kashmir shawls were acquired by travelers, explorers, military personnel and members of the East India Company who brought them back as “exotic” presents. Shortly after, European countries, namely England and France, began producing imitation Kashmir shawls. Although never fully obtaining the same quality as the original Kashmirs, European design had its own value in the market. France took the lead by obtaining its materials from the Middle East, creating distinctly French designs, and revolutionized production with img_5709the introduction of the Jacquard loom. Eventually, Europeans produced comparable shawls with cheaper materials. This caused the prices of European produced shawls to drop, allowing more than just the wealthy to own a shawl. The United States, emulating European fashions, also started producing a limited amount of shawls, in addition to wearing the ones purchased abroad.

shawlparlor

Shawl in display in the Campbell House parlor, December 2016.

A number of factors led to the decline of the Kashmir shawl industry in the West: war, famine, and fashion. By the 1870s, France had become the biggest importer of both shawls and shawl materials from Kashmir. But when the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870, trade halted and robbed Kashmir of its largest shawl consumer. Around the same time, a famine crossing India robbed the industry of its artists, leaving fewer workers to create the shawls. Additionally, the “in” dress fashions played a role in the decline of shawl popularity. The bustles, or protrusion on the back of the dress, did not allow the shawl to fall properly as it did with previous dress styles. While some women altered their shawls to fit the new style, many sought to repurpose their textile treasure into furniture pieces, such as piano covers or curtains. Furthermore, as the prices became cheaper and more women owned shawls, it fell out of style. What was once a symbol of wealth and luxury became a garment of days gone by.

The donated shawl made its debut during this year’s Christmas display and will be out for public viewing until mid-January.

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