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What is a Serape?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

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

Discussion Comments
By John57 — On Oct 03, 2011

What I like most about any type of serape I have ever seen is the beautiful, bright colors they are made with.

I have seen serape blankets used often as decorations in Mexican restaurants. Many times these are displayed hanging up on the wall to add some traditional Mexican flare to the restaurant.

When we were visiting Mexico a few years ago, each of our kids brought home a Mexican serape as a souvenir. They wore them around the house for awhile and used them a few times for certain parties at church or school, but they never wore them anywhere else.

By discographer — On Oct 02, 2011

@anamur-- The different names probably does have to do with different regions. When it comes to their shape though, I think a pancho is always square with a hole in the middle where the head goes.

The article already mentioned that serape can be made in different ways. It can be a large fabric that's wrapped around or a square with a hole just like a pancho. Also, most of the panchos I've seen are not colorful like serapes, so there is definitely a difference with the designs and colors.

I agree that despite these differences, it can be easy to confuse them because I think that recently, pancho is being used more generically to mean outer dress. So some people might even say that serape is in fact a pancho.

By serenesurface — On Oct 02, 2011

What is the difference between a serape and a pancho? A poncho is also a South American outer dress and I think they look very similar and are made from similar materials.

Do serape and poncho belong to different South American regions or countries?

When I first heard the name 'serape' it actually didn't occur to me that it is a South American clothing item. I saw a serape at a very high end European clothing store. It had the classic colors that this brand is known for but it was labeled as a 'serape.' Later, I saw a picture of an original serape and realized that what I saw before is an adaptation of the original one.

It's so interesting to me how we keep going back to indigenous styles, colors and designs in textile.

By candyquilt — On Oct 01, 2011

I bought a serape when I was in Latin America and even wore it there a couple of times. It basically serves as a coat and it keeps you really really warm, at least the wool ones do. Mine was wool and even though we were visiting a town near the South American Alps, I didn't feel a need for a coat when I wore the serape.

Plus, it's so beautiful and colorful! If you are out in nature, you can spot someone wearing a serape from far far away due to the colors. Maybe that was one of the purposes the indigenous people wanted to achieve when making them.

I still wear it from time to time. It's great for when I'm putting up Christmas decorations and lights outside. I also use it as a blanket sometimes. It's definitely something that gets used, it's not just a souvenir from Latin America.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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