How The Standard Bandana Design Came About

Bandana with a turkey red paisley design on a table
Image credit: Steve Johnson on Unsplash

The design of what you might reasonably call the basic bandana — the ubiquitous red paisley kind worn by just about everyone from Appalachian miners to Hollywood stars — first came together a few centuries ago in Scotland. This was down to the collision of two industries, each corresponding to a constituent part of the basic bandana: the colour of its fabric and the style of its print.

Humankind’s pursuit of various pigments has long shaped — and coloured — our history. Think of the bizarre case of mummy brown, for example. Turkey red, the default bandana shade, is no exception. If, like me, you suspect it might be named for the waddle colour of the flightless bird of the same name, you, like me, would be disappointed to find the truth to be much more prosaic. In fact, it’s named for its country of origin.

Turkey red — the colour and dyeing technique that produced it — made its way from the Levant to Britain via European dye-makers in the late 18th century. According to the National Museums Scotland’s website (which features great examples of textiles dyed in this way): 

‘It was brought to Scotland by a French entrepreneur in 1785 and quickly adopted by a number of manufacturers with factories on the banks of the River Clyde and in the Vale of Leven in Dunbartonshire. It was a large industry, employing many thousands in the mid and later nineteenth century, producing millions of yards of dyed and printed cloth and yarn, which was mainly for export.’ 

National Museums Scotland

The dying process was complex, tedious, and expensive. It took nearly a month to complete and demanded near constant attention. The dye was mostly composed of a plant root called madder, which gave it colour, but also contained such unseemly ingredients as rancid olive oil, sheep’s dung, and bullocks’ blood. A heady combination to be sure, but necessary for producing a much-sought vivid colour that was resistant to fading by sunlight or washing.

The Scottish countryside proved an ideal place for production owing to abundantly flowing rivers, ample sheep herds, plenty of open air drying space, and all the necessary gear. 

Folded bandana with turkey red paisley design
Image is my own / All rights reserved

Paisley followed a similar trajectory. This intricate tadpole/teardrop pattern is thought to have originated some thousands of years ago, perhaps taking its shape from that of the cypress tree. It made its way from the Orient to Europe thanks to the various East India Companies in the mid 18th century, eventually finding a fertile home in the Scottish countryside. So much so, in fact, that the design (originally called ‘boteh’) became synonymous with the small town of Paisley, just east of Glasgow. As importing textiles became prohibitively expensive, European production took over and Paisley emerged as the leading producer. Shawls bearing the pattern were first made there in the early 1800s; by 1850 there were more than 7000 weavers in town.

Close up of a red and gold paisley pattern on blue
Lauren Finkel / CC BY-ND 2.0

So it was in Scotland that the design features that would come to define the mainstream bandana coalesced. It was not meant to last, however — at least not at first. Simpler dying techniques were being developed and by the 1870s the bottom had fallen out of the luxury shawl market, causing paisley to take a back seat, at which point we must turn to America for the development of the bandana proper (for which, see this week’s article on the subject).

It wasn’t until the mid-to-late 1960s that the iconic pattern raised its head again, thanks to a paisley resurgence among trendy British fashion designers. This led to it being picked up by prominent musicians of the time and the counterculture at large. Think Hendrix at Woodstock, or Tommy Chong and Dennis Hopper in the ‘70s. This served to cement the design relatively firmly in the fashions of decades to come, meaning you can still find Turkey red paisley bandanas everywhere from Amazon to Mr Porter and just about everywhere in between.

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