The Shawl: A Timeless Look with Versatile Purpose

What makes a shawl a shawl? It’s not the color, the material, the shape, or even the size. After all, shawls come in a wide variety of hues and patterns. They can be delicately knitted and lacy or thick like a blanket. They can be shaped like triangles or ovals. They can be large or small. The one thing that makes a shawl a shawl is the way that it’s worn: draped over the shoulders.

Beyond that common ground, the many different shawls of the world have the characteristics of their time, culture, and purpose. 

Shawls Have Been Around as Long as Humans

In one form or another, shawls have been a part of human history for as long as we know. Their earliest primary purpose was likely to provide warmth. They are an easy way to layer on protection and trap body heat without having to learn any complicated sewing techniques or patterns.

The word shawl comes from the Indian world shal. The earliest versions of garments were traditionally worn by men.

Shawls began to circulate throughout Europe in the late 1700s. Many of these shawls were Asian in origin, and the most popular version was made from pashmina. The word pashmina has Persian roots and refers to a specific kind of wool that is easy to weave. This wool comes from a particular breed of goats found in the Himalayas in Kashmir. This material and the beautiful shawls created from it can be traced back to the 3rd century B.C.E. At the time, the material was only worn by royalty, as it was rare and highly valued. 

In the 15th century, the ruler of Kashmir is believed to have founded the region’s wool industry. This is why people today in Western cultures refer to pashmina as “cashmere.” To this day, the soft material is associated with luxury and preciousness, and pashmina shawls are still popular and coveted items. They’re primarily worn by women and provide warmth, beauty, and modesty. They are often brightly colored and ornately designed with intricate patterns. 

The popularity of shawls in Europe is historically connected to the rise of neoclassical women’s fashion. In the late 1700s, women’s dresses tended to be made out of flimsy material influenced by Greek and Roman attire. These dresses may have been graceful, but they were not very warm. Shawls provided an easy way to have comfort and warmth while still being fashionable. 

Shawls Provide DIY Fashion

While the 20th century saw a rise in the use of elegant shawls to accompany evening gowns, shawls have also found popularity in a much more everyday, down-to-earth style.

Modern shawls truly come in all shapes, sizes, materials, and colors. They are also a popular item for textile artists (amateur and professional) to make themselves. With no holes for the arms or the head to worry about and no sizing required, shawls can offer a relatively simple pattern for beginners. At the same time, the versatility and relatively small size of many shawl pattern options provide room to experiment and explore creative ideas for even the most seasoned of creators. They do not use a tremendous amount of yarn, making them an affordable option, as well. 

Today’s shawls are primarily worn by women and might be used for added warmth. Also, they can be used to simply add a pop of color and texture to an otherwise simple outfit or to exist as a creative expression of individuality and artistic effort. Whether short or long, bright or muted, angular or round, shawls have been part of human ingenuity since antiquity and appear poised to stay around for a long time.