Stories of entrepreneurs, visionaries, creators and inventors thread their way through Paisley; leaving their pattern on the town’s history and modern-day identity.
Thought to have been established by 7th century Irish monk Saint Mirin, Paisley was cemented as a major religious centre with the building of its Abbey in the 12th century. The Abbey stands proud today and plans are afoot to create an new visitor centre. The centre will tell the story of Paisley’s rich history, culture and people.
It is almost impossible to travel through Paisley without seeing a reminder of its booming thread industry. Whether by the six-storey, red brick mill that sits on the side of the River Cart; home to the Clarks firm or by Paisley Town Hall. Built thanks to a legacy from George A Clark it’s currently undergoing refurbishment to provide a flagship performance venue.
Paisley’s thread industry was founded by Christian Shaw. She brought these skills to Scotland by observing methods in Holland, where the best thread was made. She started making silk thread from the family home Bargarran House. Many remember Shaw for more than her entrepreneurial skills. She also has a connection to a dark spell in Paisley history; the witch trial at the end of the 17th century. Shaw claimed to be the victim of witchcraft after suffering severe fits. This lead to the burning of six people at the stake on Gallowgreen. Their remains buried on a crossing now known as Maxwelton Cross, which is still visible today.
Towards the end of the 18th century over 26,000 people contributed to the manufacture of textiles in Paisley. James and Patrick Clark had arrived in the mid century. Their business created silk thread to be used in weaving. When silk became unavailable during the Napoleonic Wars Patrick solved the problem. He invented a way of twisting cotton yards to produce a smooth but tough thread. This would be useful in both industry and at home. In establishing their mill on the River Cart in 1812 they established Paisley as the home of large-scale cotton thread making.
Meanwhile, James Coats, son of a weaving family, started to make his mark in the textiles industry; producing crepe shawls and embroidered goods. With increased mechanisation came the opportunity to set up a successful thread twisting mill which he passed on to his sons James and Peter, and J & P Coats was born. Both the Coats and Clarks families began manufacturing in North America and the two biggest names in the business went on to join forces to become J & P Coats Ltd and the largest thread manufacturer in the world. J & P Coats Ltd was one of the five largest companies listed on the London Stock Exchange and was a truly global business employing thousands and exporting across the world. The Seedhill Road area of Paisley was full of mills dominating the sky line.
In the late 1900’s the mills sadly closed, with cheaper production available overseas. But Coats Viyella is still the world’s largest manufacturer of sewing thread. A tour of the town today reveals thoroughfares such as Cotton Street and Shuttle Street; permanent markers of the town’s proud industry.
Of course, the town of Paisley has become forever linked with the Paisley Pattern; but Renfrewshire was not the birthplace of the curly, teardrop-shaped emblem. Its origin is in Persia; but imports from the East India Company brought the pattern to Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. In particular, in the form of luxurious Kashmir shawls. The multi-coloured motif was popular leading to cheaper imitations of the shawls throughout Europe; most notably in Paisley. Underlining its western identity as the Paisley Pattern and its appeal as a high fashion item.
John Knox Witherspoon was also a contributor to Paisley’s thread of global influence. A Church of Scotland minister at the town’s Laigh Kirk in the 18th century; Witherspoon is a Founding Father of the USA. He emigrated to New Jersey in 1768 to become president and head professor of the small Presbyterian College of New Jersey in Princeton. Transforming it from a clergyman’s place of study to an authoritative school of leaders that’s now the acclaimed Princeton University. A descendent of John Knox, the founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland; Witherspoon was a signatory to the American Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776.
Around this time saw the birth of ‘Paisley’s Son’, Robert Tannahill. The son of a weaver who worked the loom while weaving of a different kind – poetry. Creating over 100 works and known as ‘Weaver’s Poet’, Tannahill was a friend of Robert Burns.
Another famous Paisley ‘Buddy’, the affectionate term for anyone who hails from the town, is the inventor James Goodfellow. He is credited across the world as the inventor of the personal identification number (PIN). As a engineer he created the idea of the automatic teller machine (ATM) as a way to withdraw cash; using a unique number, from a bank outside opening hours. It’s difficult to imagine a world without PINs, which are the key to just about every transaction.
Paisley is enjoying a higher profile with renewed pride, following its bid to become UK City of Culture in 2021. Ultimately Coventry won the title, but you can’t help but feel that Scotland’s largest town has a refreshed confidence and vision that its entrepreneurs of yesteryear would approve of.