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.
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 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.