What is a Shawl?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A shawl is a large swath of cloth which is designed to be wrapped loosely around the neck, shoulders, and upper body. Many shawls are also large enough to cover the head, if the wearer so desires. Many cultures have a tradition of producing shawls, ranging from the serape of Latin America to the famous Pashminas of Kashmir. The fashion for shawls waxes and wanes, but they are almost always available at department stores and clothing shops, and they are commonly seen on older women with a more traditional fashion sense.

A red silk shawl.
A red silk shawl.

The English word “shawl” comes from the Persian shal, the result of the popularity of imported Middle Eastern and Asian shawls in Europe. The Persians themselves took the word from the Sanskrit sati, which simply means “cloth.” English speakers have been using the term “shawl” since the 1600s, although such wraps were certainly in existence before.

Shawls may be worn to provide warmth and insulation.
Shawls may be worn to provide warmth and insulation.

Shawls come in a wide variety of shapes. Rectangles and squares are common, with many wearers folding their shawls into triangular shapes. It is also possible to find triangular and oblong shawls, or shawls in more unusual shapes. They may be fringed, trimmed, or left plain, and they come in a rainbow of colors and with an assortment of patterns.

The shawls of Asia are perhaps the most famous for their beauty and quality. Lightweight wool shawls, delicate silk shawls, and more sturdy wool shawls took Europe by storm when importers began to bring them in, replacing fibers like cotton and linen. The finest shawls were said to be made from materials so delicate and flexible that the shawl could be pulled through a wedding ring without snagging.

From a purely practical standpoint, a shawl provides excellent warmth and insulation, and it can also be a fashion statement. Historically, many women wore shawls over evening gowns as they moved from home to ball, using the shawls to stay warm along the way and then discarding them at the final destination. Stylish and elegant shawls were also obligatory for promenades outdoors.

Many shops sell shawls today, including traditional Asian shawls which have been made in the same way for centuries. When selecting a shawl, you don't need to draw it through your wedding ring, but it is a good idea to test the weave of the fabric to make sure it is strong. You may also want to think about how the color or pattern will coordinate with your wardrobe, coloring, and eyes, and shorter buyers might want to try shawls on to make sure that they do not drag on the ground.

Serapes from Latin America are one type of shawl.
Serapes from Latin America are one type of shawl.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@cloudel – That sounds like a cool multitasking accessory. That kind of shawl just wouldn't be warm enough for me, though. I stay cold nearly all the time, and when I go to a restaurant, I have to wear something warm and fuzzy.

I have a shawl that my grandmother made that is thick enough to keep me warm. I do get a few puzzled looks when I walk in during the middle of summer wrapped up in a thick knit shawl, but without it, I would not be able to enjoy my meal.

It's woven tightly enough to keep the cold air out. It dips down past my waist, so I have plenty of material to wrap around myself and tie in a knot.


My friend made something she calls a scarf shawl. It can be worn around your neck or as a full shawl.

The material is really lightweight, so it doesn't get heavy if you have it wrapped around your neck. It can be scrunched up without looking bulky, and it can be expanded to shawl shape easily.

It is made from a crinkly material that looks wrinkled on purpose, and this makes it ideal for a dual purpose shawl. I love wearing it out to dinner, because I often get cold in restaurants, and I can just slip it off my neck and around my body. I don't even have to bring a jacket.


I have a turquoise lace shawl that I like to take with me on my beach vacation every year. It provides just enough warmth for those chilly mornings before the sun has risen high enough in the sky to heat the land.

I like to drink my coffee out on the balcony, so I always wrap up in the lace shawl. It fends off a bit of the breeze.

I keep it on as I go down to the shore to pick up shells. The ocean breeze can be pretty intense at times, and the shawl keeps me from shivering.


I think a lot of the shawl wraps that people wear over formal evening gowns are smaller than the kind worn for warmth in the winter. I went to a ball last summer, and I kept seeing women walk into the building in shawls that covered their shoulders and chest but did not extend down beyond that.

Many women had their shawls secured with brooches. Some had them tied in a simple knot in the center. Everyone removed their shawls at the door and gave them to the doorman.

I was probably the only person at the ball not drinking alcohol, so I stayed cold. I really wished that I had a shawl with me then. I would not have taken it off like everyone else did.

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