A serape, or sarape, is a brightly colored, heavyweight shawl produced in Latin America. It is probably most closely associated with Mexico, although this garment can be found throughout Central America, and many visitors to the region purchase them as souvenirs. The brightly colored shawls are one of the many distinctive cultural arts of the region, and in addition to being actively worn on the streets, they can also be found in museums that specialize in indigenous textiles.
Traditional serapes are made with a dark background color, such as black or brown, interwoven with brightly colored stripes in colors like green, red, and pink. The shawl is usually roughly rectangular in shape, and the ends are typically fringed. Some Guatemalan ones have a hole in the middle, allowing people to stick their heads through, and in some cases a hood may be sewn into them to provide additional protection from the elements.
Serapes are typically quite large, big enough to double as blankets in a pinch, and they are traditionally made from wool, a thick fiber that provides insulation and some water resistance. They are often a bit coarse and rough, because they are not designed to be worn directly against the skin, although some companies do make softer versions from materials like cotton or finely combed wool.
Depending on the region of Central America under discussion, these garments may be worn by men and women, or just men. In Mexico, they tend to be worn by men in particular, while in Guatemala, women wear them as well. Typically, the shawl drapes to the knees when worn loosely over the shoulders, and some people wrap it over one shoulder only, providing extra insulation for one side of the body and leaving an arm free for field work, handling an animal, or other tasks.
When purchasing serapes, many people like to patronize indigenous craftspeople, who often have stands by the side of the road or sell to collectives that focus on traditional crafts. Shoppers should always inspect the weave of the item before buying it, and test it for flexibility and holes. People may also want to ask for specific care directions to ensure that it is not damaged in the wash. As a general rule, it is safe to assume that most of these garments should be washed by hand with cold water and a very mild soap, and laid flat to dry so that their shapes do not deform.