Formerly and variously known as Paislay, Passelet, Passeleth, and Passelay the burgh's name is of uncertain origin; some sources suggest a derivation either from the Brittonic word pasgill, "pasture", or from passeleg, "basilica", (i.e. major church), itself derived from the Greek βασιλική basilika. However, some Scottish place-name books suggest "Pæssa's wood/clearing", from the Old English personal name Pæssa, "clearing", and leāh, "wood". Pasilege (1182) and Paslie (1214) are recorded previous spellings of the name. The Gaelic translation is Pàislig.
The Anchor Mills (1886) – a remnant of Paisley's Victorian industrial heritage.
Paisley has monastic origins. A chapel is said to have been established by the 6th-/7th-century Irish monk, Saint Mirin at a site near a waterfall on the White Cart Water known as the Hammils. Though Paisley lacks contemporary documentation it may have been, along with Glasgow and Govan, a major religious centre of the Kingdom of Strathclyde. A priory was established in 1163 from the Cluniac priory at Wenlock in Shropshire, England at the behest of Walter fitz Alan, Steward of Scotland (d. 1177). In 1245 this was raised to the status of an Abbey. The restored Abbey and adjacent 'Place' (palace), constructed out of part of the medieval claustral buildings, survive as a Church of Scotland parish church. One of Scotland's major religious houses, Paisley Abbey was much favoured by the Bruce and Stewart royal families. King Robert III (1390–1406) was buried in the Abbey. His tomb has not survived, but that of Princess Marjorie Bruce (1296–1316), ancestor of the Stewarts, is one of Scotland's few royal monuments to survive the Reformation.
Paisley coalesced under James II's wish that the lands should become a single regality and, as a result, markets, trading and commerce began to flourish. In 1488 the town's status was raised by James IV to Burgh of barony. Many trades sprang up and the first school was established in 1577 by the Town Council.
The Paisley witches, also known as the Bargarran witches or the Renfrewshire witches, were tried in Paisley in 1697. Seven were convicted and five were hanged and then burnt on the Gallow Green. Their remains were buried at Maxwelton Cross in the west end of the town. This was the last mass execution for witchcraft in western Europe. A horse shoe was placed on top of the site to lock in the evil. A horse shoe is still visible in the middle of this busy road junction today—though not the original. The modern shoe is made of bronze and bears the inscription, "Pain Inflicted, Suffering Endured, Injustice Done".
The Industrial Revolution, based on the textile industry, turned Paisley from a small market town to an important industrial town in the late 18th century. Its location attracted English mill owners; immigrants from Ayrshire and the Highlands poured into a town that offered jobs to women and children. However, silk fell out of fashion in 1790. The mills switched to the imitation Kashmir (cashmere) shawls called "Paisley". Under the leadership of Thomas Coats (1809-1893), Paisley became the world centre for thread making. The high-status skilled weavers mobilised themselves in radical protests after 1790, culminating in the failed "Radical War" of 1820. Overproduction, the collapse of the shawl market and a general depression in the textile industry led to technical changes that reduced the importance of weavers. Politically the mill owners remained in control of the town.
By the mid-19th century weaving had become the town's principal industry. The Paisley weavers' most famous products were the shawls, which bore the Paisley Pattern made fashionable after being worn by a young Queen Victoria. Despite being of a Kashmiri design and manufactured in other parts of Europe, the teardrop-like pattern soon became known by Paisley's name across the western world. Although the shawls dropped out of fashion in the 1870s, the Paisley pattern remains an important symbol of the town: the Paisley Museum maintains a significant collection of the original shawls in this design, and it has been used, for example, in the modern logo of Renfrewshire Council, the local authority.
Through its weaving fraternity, Paisley gained notoriety as being a literate and somewhat radical town and between 1816 and 1820 became the scene of a Radical War. Political intrigue, early trades unionism and reforming zeal came together to produce mass demonstrations, cavalry charges down the high street, public riots and trials for treason. Documentation from the period indicates that overthrow of the government was even contemplated by some. The weavers of Paisley were certainly active in the 'Radical War'. A mixture of religious opinions and healthy drink-fueled debate raged at night amongst the weavers, poets, merchants, masons and others. The perceived radical nature of the inhabitants prompted the Tory Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli to comment "Keep your eye on Paisley". The poet Robert Tannahill lived in this setting, working as a weaver. Paisley's annual Sma' Shot Day celebrations held on the first Saturday of July  were initiated in 1856 to commemorate a 19th-century dispute between weavers and employers over payment for "sma' shot" – a small cotton thread which, although unseen, was necessary in holding together garments.
A permanent military presence was established in the town with the completion of Paisley Barracks in 1822.
The economic crisis of 1841–43 hit Paisley hard as most of the mills shut down. Among the mill owners, 67 of 112 went bankrupt. A quarter of the population was on poor relief. The Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel decided to act. He secured additional funds for relief and sent his own representative to the city to supervise its distribution. He convinced Queen Victoria to wear Paisley products in order to popularise the products and stimulate demand.
The American Civil War of 1861–1865 cut off cotton supplies to the textile mills of Paisley. The mills in 1861 had a stock of cotton in reserve, but by 1862 there was large-scale shortages and shutdowns. There were no alternative jobs for the workers, and local authorities refuse to provide relief. Voluntary relief efforts were inadequate, and the unemployed workers refused to go to workhouses. Workers blamed not the United States, but rather the officials in London for their hardship and did not support the idea of war with the United States.
First World War
Paisley suffered heavy losses in the First World War.
Its war memorial was designed by Sir Robert Lorimer (other sources say Harold Tarbolton) in 1922 and depicts Robert the Bruce going into battle on horseback escorted by footsoldiers dressed as First World War infantry soldiers. It was sculpted by Alice Meredith Williams.
Paisley was also the site of an incident that gave rise to a major legal precedent. In a Paisley cafe in 1928, a woman allegedly found a dead snail in a bottle of ginger beer, and became ill. She sued the manufacturer for negligence. At the time a manufacturer was considered liable only if there was a contract in place with the harmed party. However, after Donoghue v Stevenson wound through the courts, a precedent was established that manufacturers (and other "neighbours" or fellow citizens) owe a duty not to do foreseeable harm to others by negligence, regardless of contractual obligations, which paved the way for modern tort law. The case is often called the "Paisley snail."
Second World War
Owing to its industrial roots, Paisley, like many industrial towns in Renfrewshire, became a target for German Luftwaffe bombers during World War II. Although it was not bombed as heavily as nearby Glasgow (see Clydebank Blitz), air raids still occurred periodically during the early years of the war, killing nearly a hundred people in several separate incidents; on 6 May 1941, a parachute mine was dropped in the early hours of the morning claiming 92 victims; this is billed the worst disaster in Paisley's history. The Gleniffer Braes, on the southern outskirts of Paisley, are home to a number of "decoy ponds" (mock airfields) used by the RAF after the Battle of Britain as part of a project code-named "Starfish Decoy" designed to confuse German spies.
Paisley, as with other areas in Renfrewshire, was at one time famous for its weaving and textile industries. As a consequence, the Paisley pattern has long symbolic associations with the town. Until the Jacquard loom was introduced in the 1820s, weaving was a cottage industry. This innovation led to the industrialisation of the process and many larger mills were created in the town. Also as a consequence of greater mechanisation, many weavers lost their livelihoods and left for Canada and Australia. Paisley was for many years a centre for the manufacture of cotton sewing thread. At the heyday of Paisley thread manufacture in the 1930s, there were 28,000 people employed in the huge Anchor and Ferguslie mills of J & P Coats Ltd, said to be the largest of their kind in the world at that time. In the 1950s, the mills diversified into the production of synthetic threads but production diminished rapidly as a result of less expensive imports from overseas and the establishment of mills in India and Brazil by J & P Coats. By the end of the 1993, there was no thread being produced in Paisley. Both industries have left a permanent mark on the town in the form of the many places with textile related names, for example, Dyer's Wynd, Cotton Street, Thread Street, Shuttle Street, Lawn Street, Silk Street, Mill Street, Gauze Street and Incle Street.
The town also supported a number of engineering works some of which relied on the textile industry, others on shipbuilding. Paisley once had five shipyards including John Fullerton and Company (1866–1928), Bow, McLachlan and Company (1872–1932) and Fleming and Ferguson (1877–1969).
Advertisement for Brown & Polson's, 1894
Advertisement for the Ferguslie Thread Works in the 1867 Paris World Fair catalogue
A number of food manufacture companies existed in Paisley. The preserve manufacturer Robertsons began in Paisley as a grocer whose wife started making marmalade from oranges in 1860. This product was successful and a factory was opened in Storie Street, Paisley, to produce it in 1866 and additional factories were later opened in Manchester, London and Bristol. The company was taken over by Rank Hovis McDougall who closed its Stevenson Street factory and transferred production to England in the 1970s. Brown and Polson was formed in Paisley in 1840 and two years later started producing starch for the weaving trades, by 1860 it was making food products including its patent cornflour. It later became CPC Foods Ltd, a subsidiary of Unilever, which produced Hellmann's mayonnaise, Gerber baby foods and Knorr soups. The company ceased production in Paisley in 2002.
In 1981 Peugeot Talbot, formerly Chrysler and before that Rootes, announced that its Linwood factory just outside Paisley would cease production. This led to the loss of almost 5,000 jobs.
At one time M&Co. (Mackays) had its head office in Caledonia House in Paisley.
In 2015, the town launched its bid to become UK City of Culture in 2021. On 15 July 2017 Paisley was announced as one of five shortlisted candidates,  however on December 7, 2017 Paisley lost its bid to Coventry. Following the announcement, Renfrewshire Council and the Paisley 2021 Board stated that Paisley's "journey will continue" and that the bid process was "just the beginning" for regeneration processes to begin in the town.