Thursday, September 19, 2013

Paisley is Not Period: A Look at Ottoman Textile Motifs

This is from a paper I wrote recently for a competition at WoW. The paper was thrown together over a span of three days (so don't be too hard on me) in between work and getting stuff done for my best friends' wedding. I am also having several formatting issues, so please bear with me as I edit the page. Long paper is long.

One of the biggest challenges I've encountered as a re-enactor is finding quality information on Ottoman art and artifact within the Society timeline. The Ottoman Empire spanned from the 14th Century until the 1920’s, so when researching you have to pay close attention not only to the dates, but to visual clues. After staring at pictures of textiles and miniatures for years, patterns started to emerge. This is my attempt to make sense of a visual history with regards to its textiles as it falls within our time of study.

I feel that Middle Eastern personas have often been looked upon unfavorably because a large portion of its participants have a lot of misinformation, resulting in a very modern aesthetic. While my focus is on Ottoman textiles, it should be said that a lot of the resulting research can be applied across much of the Middle East. Most garments were not cut with busts exposed and women didn’t all walk around naked, nor were they completely covered up.  To summarize all of the cultural aspects, sumptuary laws and clothing styles across the lands and time of the “Middle East” would be an immense task.  One of the ways we can best make our garments more correct is to have more knowledge of what patterns are appropriate for what we are attempting to recreate. Sometimes the only difference between “Persian” and “Ottoman” garb are the design elements on our fabric. In my attempt to make Ottoman garb more researched and defined within Society, I have a few windmills: Garments have necklines not bust lines, stripes are bad, and Paisley is not period.

Paisley is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as, “a distinctive intricate pattern of curved feather-shaped figures based on an Indian pine-cone design.”  The modern design is named after a town in Scotland whose textile mills were known for producing a large quantity of woven fabrics displaying this popular textile motif in the 19th Century. Paisley again became popular in modern fabrics in the 1970’s. It is this modern design that we most often find in fabrics that one might choose to represent Middle Eastern.

The origins of Paisley may well be “period” for India, where the design element originates, but a preliminary glance suggests that appropriate designs are dissimilar from most modern designs available. Overall, paisley is not suitable for use in Ottoman garb within society time period. Yet, paisley is one of the most commonly found design elements used by recreationists when creating Middle Eastern garb.

I tend to have a permissive attitude about many things involving the Ottomans because of the sheer amount of peoples and cultures incorporated into their empire. We can draw lots of assumptions about design and fashion simply based on the many cultures that the Ottomans conquered or bordered, and the possibilities of trade. By the 16th Century much of Persia became part of the empire, so it is reasonable to assume that art, literature and fashion made a merger. When viewed hundreds of years later it is easy to make mistakes in judgment of one culture over another.

With that in mind we have to incorporate cultures such as Mongol, Persian, Byzantine, Greek, Seljuk, Mamlûk, Berber, and even Rus into our pile of potential influences. During some periods, specific types of art styles came in vogue that make it difficult to discern whether something is Ottoman or not because the artist in question might have been Persian, for example, and so the art style may reflect that.

This paper is not about paisley; instead it is about what is desirable and appropriate for the re-enactor. Extant Ottoman garments in museums tend to be royal, ceremonial, or otherwise male. There are many paintings, travel drawings and miniatures that show more mundane clothing, but they may be subject to artistic interpretations. To help shed light on the designs used in Ottoman garments, I have looked at painted miniatures, illuminated manuscripts, textiles, Iznik pottery and tiles, and the flora of the Mediterranean. I have tried my best to use samples of pre 17th century textiles but, much like Elizabethan research, relevant styles cross over until the end of Osman the Second’s reign in 1622.

Floral and Leaf Designs

 Where possible, I have tried to include a botanical example. It is likely, however, that the species that were available at the time are not quite the same as the examples shown. I have not included every botanical design, only the most common.

Saz Leaves

I have listed these first because, if any one design is guilty of misleading the casual observer into thinking it’s paisley, it would be the Saz style leaves. This artistic style was popularized by court painter Shah Qulu during the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent.

h2_52.20.17.jpg (300×673)

The vine and saz textile below also includes pomegranates.

The caftan (above) shows a network of climbing vines and saz leaves. 

Saz-style refers to a school of art, much like we tend to refer to the “Italian Schools.” Not only is it the shape of the leaf that is important, but often the colors or shading that makes it so distinctively “Saz.” It is believed that the type of brush used in the painting of saz leaves is from where its name is derived.


The cypress is a conifer that is prevalent throughout the Mediterranean. It is tall and thin and lends itself well in scale to fill out the background of a leaf design. While I have found very little evidence of its use in clothing, I felt it worthy of mention as a design element as it is prevalent in miniatures, tiles, and other textile art.

In this caftan it is my suspicion that the thick vines are representative of Cyprus.

I should mention here that Iznik, much like Saz, is a term referring to a style of pottery but, like Paisley, is also representative of a region. Iznik pottery is called so for the art it contains, but the manner in which it was built as well as the quality. Many of the motifs are saz-style art done in a different medium; glazes. Tiles can be a great resource for textile designs when looking at miniatures.

 This 21 tile Iznik wall design includes Roses, Tulips, Saz, and Irises.

Palmet or Lotus

The use of lotus and peony designs is evidence of Chinese and Mongol influence. They are often accompanied by elaborate scrolls or cloud-vines. This is one of the many examples of the difficulties in discerning a Persian piece from Ottoman works, as Persian art is rife with very similar patterns. Often to differentiate between Persian and Ottoman you might look for bolder prints.

Ottoman Clothing And Garments, Caftan, Osman II

This caftan is believed to belong to Osman II (1618-22). Velvet stitches on gold cloth with blue velvet decoration and stylized lotus pattern.
Caftan of Bayezid II Includes several types of flowers and saz leaves along with the palmet design


Pomegranates are a symbol of life and fertility and thusly are very prevalent in Ottoman textiles. The fruit is common in Ottoman cuisine and literature.


These two are pine cone and pomegranate fabrics from caftans. Sadly, the example on the right is post society timeline. As it was an honor robe for a sultan, I think that it was created to resemble an earlier sultan’s robe because it is similar to a piece I’ve seen but much bolder of a print.


Tulips are not native to the Ottomans, but quickly grew popular. The species of tulip represented in the textile motifs is most likely extinct or nearly so. The Dutch tulips we are so used to seeing are fuller but, the Ottoman tulip is wispy and has beautiful long tendrils. The botanical picture below is the closest species I could find to what is believed to be the Ottoman tulip.

In the 16th Century much bolder prints start appearing in noble garments. This may be because they were easier to see in royal parades, or because they showed affluence (bigness), or simply for the sultans to separate their cultural art from those whom they had conquered. The tulip is one of a few designs that when printed boldly becomes a kind of logo for the sultanate. In contrast to many other patterns you see throughout this paper that incorporate the tulip, the garments below show the bold printing of them.


 Carnation (Dianthus sp.)
This is another floral species that is dissimilar from what we think of as the modern carnation. The key element of the species that was most likely available in the Ottoman Empire is a smaller quantity of defined petals with jagged edges, or straw-like, explosive petals.
Carnations are most often used as a smaller motif within a larger floral pattern. Below are two examples of carnations being used as a bold print. On the left a painting of a garment with bold carnations, on the right is a cushion cover.

Hyacinth flowers are worth a mention as a filler design. It is a popular element in Iznik pottery and some non-clothing textiles. It is not seen as a bold print and instead is often a small part of a busy floral design.
                                                                                                  Tile with undulating flowering stems
(Left) 17th century Pillow Covering featuring Hyacinth.
(Right) Iznik tile with lots of hyacinth, tulips, carnations and cloud scrolls.
Rose (Damask)
The Damask Rose is made into Rose Water and used for cleansing and welcome, as well as in cuisine. It is also used as an oil for cosmetic purposes.
Damask roses have a more complex petal construction than the modern European rose. Notice the feathery shape within the rose leaf and the flanges on the bud design (right) is similar to saz leaves.
(Left) Caftan of Selim II shows a small repeating print of roses and vines. I was unable to find a close-up of the roses.
16th century fragment with a type of rose.

Clouds and Çintemani

Clouds are another motif that blur the lines between Persian and Ottoman, as the cloud design is something we tend to associate with Asian culture. The Ottoman clouds are usually less scrolling and more elongated wavy lines.
Here you will see crescents which are more often than not, a version of ҫintemani. Çintemani is typified by three circles, sometimes having eyes inside of them.

Several sources refer to the ҫintemani as a symbol of protection. It is my suspicion that this is similar to the “evil eye,” which has been an amulet of protection in Islamic lands for centuries.                                               

As mentioned in the tulip section about the concept of a logo, the ҫintemani motifs are definitely the design that best illustrates it. They are bold and simple but yet very powerful symbols.

One other phenomena that can occur with ҫintemani is a series of four crescent-like pearls joined into four. From a distance it can look like a flower. It’s possible that there are many repetitive patterns in miniatures that seem to be a geometric flower design but may, in fact, be a ҫintemani quatrefoil. The dancer from a 16th century German manuscript (right) illustrates this beautifully.


Ogees are pointed ovals. Often these geometric designs will have other elements such as floral, leaves, or cintemani. Ogee designs can easily be mistaken for Persian medallions unless you use florals or other contextual clues to separate them.


While there are a great deal of animal motifs in Iznik pottery and painted miniatures, it is seemingly rare to find it in textiles. What I have come across is mostly avian in nature. There is a miniature where it appears to have a repetitive swan design (right), and there is also this peacock feather design (left):


Often seen in the background of many designs are things that can only be described as clouds or vines that are not distinctly so. Much like this Iznik selection (below), they may simply be filler but, the style of it is common and very likely part of the Asian influence mentioned previously.

Modern Fabric Examples

I can’t condemn modern fabric choices and not give examples of some that are acceptable. Here are some samples of fabrics that I have found at a retail site that are accessible to the re-creationist.

Not all of these fabrics are wearable, per se, but could still be used for covering pillows or making tents. In the selections below you can see carnations, pomegranates, roses, palmets, saz leaves, ogees and tulips.

A Note about Research

When looking at miniatures, which are large scale paintings done at illuminated manuscript size, you may have better luck finding motifs in the background than on the people.

The painting on the above shows women inside the palace. Not only are the women wearing fabrics with ҫintemani and ogee but the walls and seating are covered with it as well.
This is an example of where the ҫintemani had formed a quatrefoil which may look like a geometric flower print from a distance. We can see in the Topkapi Palace today that there were lots of tiles and textiles on walls and ceilings with many overlapping patterns.

                                               Palace of Gold and Light Museum Catalogue                     

Sometimes it’s hard to get decent pattern information from miniatures because the artist would spend more time patterning the background of the painting than what the people were wearing. I suspect that is in part due to the fact that the figures where some of the smallest things in the painting. But the patterning in the background can also give us clues to motifs that the participants might have been wearing (above).  And sometimes we get lucky with a painting and get incredible detail on patterns (below).       

I have tried to show not about the origins of paisley but rather a look at what designs are more appropriate for Ottoman garb. It’s easy to see how, at a quick glance, one would think that paisley is a desirable design element for use in re-creation. Stripes are also absent from pre-17th century ottoman clothing. There is still a lot of confusion and misinformation about Middle Eastern design and clothing that is being perpetuated by well-meaning recreationists. It is my sincere hope that, with this and further information, those who attempt to recreate Ottoman and other Middle Eastern garb will make wiser fabric and design choices as we go forward into the past.


“A brief history of paisley.”
Akar, Azade. Traditional Turkish Designs. Dover Publications, Inc. Mineola, New York 2004.
Ettinghausen, Richard.  Arab Painting. Rizzoli International Publications Inc. New York, 1977.
Evani Ceramic. “The Meaning of Design.” “Flora Islamica: Plant Motifs in the Art of Islam in Copenhagen.”  
Ibrahimoglu, Bikem. “Caftans – Ottoman Imperial Robes.”

“Introduction to the Court Carpets of the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Empires”   

Kazmi, Nuzhat. Islamic Art: The Past and Modern. Roli and Jansen, India. 2011.
Korhan, Duygu. “Saz Style”
Kunst, Scott. “Tulips With a Past.” Horticulture Magazine. February, 2002.
Levey, Michael. The World of Ottoman Art. Charles Scribner’s Sons . New York, 1975.
Louvre. Three Empires of Islam Collection “Iznik and Ottoman Ceramics.”
Metropolitan Museum of Art: Online Collections.
Palace of Gold and Light: Treasures from the Topkapi. Istanbul. Palace Arts Foundation, 2000.
 “Paisley: A visual history.” Threads of History Blog.
Porter, Venetia. Islamic Tiles. Interlink Books. Northampton, Massachusetts, 1995.
Silks from Ottoman Turkey”.
Sothebys. “Arts of the Islamic World.” Online Catalogue.   
Turkish Cultural Foundation. “The Art of Turkish Textiles.”
Victoria and Albert Museum: Online Collection
Victoria and Albert Museum “Plant Motifs in Islamic Art”

[1] All black and white line drawings are copied off of Iznik tile designs. I evaluated the Dover book, Traditional Turkish Designs, against hundreds of Iznik style plates and tiles found in museums and auctions, and found them to be wonderful copies. They are considered clip art and so I have not inserted photo credits for each individual entry.

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