By the time the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte implemented the 1806 trade blockade that interrupted Britain’s supply of silk, Paisley had already established itself as a textile center home to thousands of weavers.
But this attempt to cripple British commerce sparked an innovation that would turn the city into a manufacturing powerhouse. Within a few years, Paisley was home to the third largest company in the world and its eponymous motif had become iconic.
More than 200 years after Bonaparte’s blockade, the city no longer produces the fabric, but local leaders hope to pull on these threads to weave a new history after years of commercial decline and industrial drift that have forced a strategic overhaul of this which makes a city. The result is a comprehensive regeneration plan to make culture king in the home of John Byrne, Gerry Rafferty, David Tennant and Paolo Nutini.
This week, the Renfrewshire Council announced the start of construction on the city center campus, which will provide a Â£ 42million museum. There’s also work to be done to transform the historic Town Hall into a Â£ 22million all-sung and dance venue that will attract superstar-quality acts. And there is hope that a revamped Abbey Close, on which the town hall opens and where Marjorie, the daughter of Robert the Bruce, is in the medieval kirk, will become an Instagram destination that will ring the tills of retail and hospitality.
If it works, it will provide a model for besieged towns across Scotland and beyond. What if it doesn’t? Councilor Lisa-Marie Hughes, president of Renfrewshire Leisure, says it will not fail. âWe have all the ingredients we need to make it successful,â she says. “We know we can do it.”
The museum project was revealed as part of Paisley’s 2021 City of Culture bid. That title went to Coventry, but the vision of a culture-based renaissance remains in a city where the yarn trade is inscribed in the names of streets and monuments. The new museum will be created in a reinvention of the old facility built thanks to Sir Peter Coats of the eminent J&P Coats.
Formed from a merger of the once rival companies of the Coats and Clarks families, it had more than 50,000 employees worldwide, 25,000 shareholders and a market value of around Â£ 22million. In the 1910s, only US Steel and Standard Oil had a higher market capitalization, and now based in Uxbridge, Coats remains a multinational leader in sewing thread and supplies.
While the Coats name stuck on the paperwork, it was Patrick Clark’s ingenuity that really made success possible after this French blockade. He developed a new method of twisting fine cotton threads into a thread that was smooth and strong enough to be used in looms. This mattered because Bonaparte’s action prevented the spinning mills from getting their hands on the silk they needed. Expansion into the United States followed and money poured into buildings like the museum, designed by John Honeyman and later enlarged by his partner John Keppie and his assistant Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
The nearby Coats Observatory and Coats Memorial Church help give an idea of ââhow the yarn made Paisley as much as Paisley did the yarn. The city center has 125 listed buildings, 17 of which are Category A. Yet more were lost in mid-century modernization projects and many of those that remain have suffered years of neglect. Some, recently used as retail units, are vacant.
Many of the big brands that sold here – Topshop, Waterstones, The Body Shop, M&S – have moved to out of town retail parks and malls and the two Main Street malls – the Paisley Center and Piazza – are also busy. This is a far cry from the peak of the late ’80s and early’ 90s and there have been questions about why the board is not doing more.
ALASDAIR Morrison, his head of economy and development, says he owns only three buildings in the city center and does not set prices for companies. Some of the owners, he says, have bought without realizing how much it would cost to refurbish units for a profitable sale or rental, others can’t get the high values ââthey want. Still others have been converted into apartments, one now houses the Secret Collection, a treasure trove of state-owned artifacts, and another will become a new learning and cultural center housing library services.
Placing utilities in the middle of the most important thoroughfare is a statement of intent, Morrison says, but also a practical gesture. âIf you have traffic, you have business,â he says. “It’s part of a long journey for Paisley. It can’t be done overnight – it doesn’t happen overnight for anywhere. The board only has access to so many levers. What we know is that where there is public investment, there is a ripple effect and private investment follows.
Paisley’s business decline, says Hughes, follows the industrial decline that saw factories shut down and other large employers – marmalade maker Robertsons, chemical plant Ciba-Geigy, spirits company Chivas – relocate. âIt’s like a lot of cities,â she says. âWhat is unique is that we have placed culture at the heart of our regeneration. It’s about creating this truly unique offering of a great museum and unique events on the back of thousands of years of history.
âI am a child who grew up with little money. Going to museums has changed my outlook on life and I want to do it for others. I’m also a punk kid who used to spend her time going to concerts. I want to see them at town hall and I want us to be the people Beyonce calls when she comes to Scotland and wants to do a little gig. We can do cinemas, weddings, family events, tea dances. We can do it all. It’s gonna be amazing.
AL_A ââSpecialists Architect Matthew Wilkinson says it was this ambition that drew his firm. He has worked all over London to Lisbon and previous clients include the V&A. They only take “exceptional projects,” he says. âWe are looking to find the gems.
âThis is a non-national museum that writes a much more ambitious and radical memoir than national and international museums. It was really exciting for us. The potential of what this project can do for the whole city is enormous. It makes the job difficult. Everyone is trying to do more than what we can possibly possibly can, so we are trying to make the most of everything. ”
This includes the removal of a 1970s extension and the remodeling of the interior spaces of the museum, as well as the creation of a new entrance and an outdoor garden connecting the observatory. The result will be more accessible and larger than before, increasing the gallery space by over 25% to allow museum star Buddy the Lion – a favorite for generations of visitors – to be joined by artifacts of all centuries and all cultures. Paisley has an impressive collection of works by Scottish colourists, prized ceramics, Syrian artifacts and pieces from the Pacific, as well as a collection of these locally woven shawls.
READ MORE: The threads that weave Paisley and a Catalan village
âReally, you can only do a project like this once in a century,â says project director Kirsty Devine. âIt’s not about starting on day one, it’s about 10 years after opening.
âCashmere is more than a pattern. We have global reach.
The story behind this motif is one of those that will be on display. It was imported from ancient Persia and India throughout Europe through the silk trade and has become synonymous with this Scottish city due to its textile dominance. Against the backdrop of a reexamination of colonialism and imperialism, the story will be carefully told – Devine staff have been trained in unconscious bias and critical whiteness and work with groups representing specific groups on how to process collections related to Australia, the Pacific Islands and more. In the 1980s, one of the museum’s most important exhibits was a collection of Robertsons branded items with his golliwog logo. There are ongoing conversations about how to handle this. âIt’s in people’s memories,â says Devine.
âWe have a responsibility to explore the ethics and nuances of this collection. The museum provides this platform for debate. Our values ââare to be daring, to be radical, not to be afraid to tackle a whole range of subjects. It’s about making sure there is integrity in the storytelling.