Shawl Basics

For more in-depth information, read Paisley, Plaid, & Purled: Shawls of the Mid-Nineteenth Century

PPandP book cover


Shawls for Historic Interpretation

Kashmir,  Paisley and Paisley-type Shawls

Paisley family shawl, possibly French

Fibers, weave and size: These shawls should ideally be made of hair brushed from the Kashmir/cashmere goat or from a wool and silk blend. The silk should be the warp or blended into the wool in a small amount. Avoid shawls with a rayon or acetate blended with the wool. Original Kashmirs are very light weight because of the tapestry twill weave. I have yet to be able to compare the weights of original and new. Look for sizes around 64 inches square or 64×128 inches as a double square.

Design: When looking for an Paisley shawl, look for a strong cone motif. The cone motifs should radiate out from a center field of black, white or red. These radiating motives create a star or spoked flower appearance from a distance.  The spokes should be connected with ribbon like borders consisting of small floral motives. By our era a newer shawl would have a smallish center. But, the higher cost of these shawls along with their durability means it would not be unlikely for a grown woman to have a shawl with a larger center from her youth. The outer border can be on two or four sides. This borer should be comprised of smaller designs brought together in the border. Kashmir borders will have more independent blocks of design while French borders will visually entwine each block with it’s neighbor.

Two other design options include the striped shawl and the border shawl.

Where to look: There are some nice shawls coming out of India. Many of these are available on online and via Ebay for various prices. When doing an online search use “Paisley Shawl” or “Cashmere Shawl” or “Antique Shawl” for your key words.

(note: I have read several 1990’s news stories regarding the skinning of goats for their under-coat hair, which is used to make shawls, thus endagering the goats. While shopping be sure to find a merchant you are confidant in.)

Woven shawls Red Wool Shawl

Fibers, weave and size: Wool or wool/silk blends. These should also be 64 inches square or 64 inches by 128 double square. A shawl relatively near these dimensions will look nice. The weave should be a tight plain or twill weave. The shawl can range from light weight to rather heavy if hand-woven.

Design : Look for solids, checks, plaids (preferably symmetrical) stripes and border plaids.

Golden yellow plaid shawl with detailWhere to look: This is a type of shawl you can make yourself. Many Museums offer weaving classes thru-out the year. You can also make a fabric shawl from woven wool lengths. You will need a dress weight to coat weight wool rather than a heavy weight  in a 54 inch to 60 inch width. Plain woven fabric and plaid woven fabrics work well. The yardage can fringed on the end by unravelling the ends by hand. To calculate your yardage, decide if you want a square or double square shawl and how long you wish your fringe to be on the ends. For a square shawl, purchase the width of the fabric plus 6 to 12 inches for fringe. For example: if you want a double square shawl out of 60 inch wide fabric purchase 130 inches for a 120 inch shawl with 5 inch fringe.  (see the article on fringing a shawl)

Printed shawls

Fibers, weave and size: Printed shawls come in wool, cotton and blends of wool, silk and cotton. Ideally, you would find a 64 inch square shawl, but the common 55 inch square shawl is not bad.

Design: Printed shawls vary by region. Look for period motifs and borders.

Where to look:  The Russian Pavlovo Posad company still makes printed shawls in their 19th century designs. There are several sellers listing these on ebay and more on the web. I am still trying to find a direct link to the company. I may have to settle with a regular address and phone number. Use “Pavlovo Shawls” or “Russian Shawls” for your internet search.

Sheer Shawls – Muslin Shawls, Grenadine & Barege

Fibers, weave and size: I still have not found sheer shawls that I like. These were silk, wool or cotton. They frequently had a plain central field and a stripe border creating a plaid motif.

Lawn, Gauze, Voile, Silk Organza & Batiste fabrics can be used to make a sheer shawl. The edges would need to be hand finished with a rolled hem. This isn’t what original shawls have though. You may want to starch the fabric as well. You can add tucks to the border or ribbon to the border or edge.  

Design:: Plain, woven plaids, woven checks, woven border plaids.

Where to look: – Online fabric merchants including Exclusive Silks and Fashion Fabric Club

Silk Shawls

Fibers, weave and size: I have not yet found the ideal silk shawl. Thai Silks has larger white shawls in their scarf section. These are a little smaller than ideal, but may suit your needs.

To make your own shawl, you want a durable silk, in the 64inch square range, no slubs with or without fringing. Look for a taffeta, china or habotai silk. Do not use satin.  I have seen solid color, shot (or changable silk) and patterned silk shawls. A couple of the India, China and Thai merchants sell nice silk shawls. I tend to think play it safe for silk shawls and go for simple. Also, many list as silk but are selling Viscose.

Design:: If you want to embroider your shawl, I highly suggest looking extensively at originals.

Embroidered China Crape

There are some fabulously beautiful embroidered shawls out there… but only a few designs are suitable. I occasionally pick through ebay to see what is out there. It is rare I find something that meets size, design, quality and fiber standards. But it is possible.–dsh–Hand/Detail Has a few that I like. These cost in the $180 area. I was surprised to find there are a couple shawls I like on the flamanco sites. These are in the $200+ for the larger shawls and $169 for the smaller piano shawls.

Lace Shawls

Sadly, every modern lace shawl I have seen is a synthetic. I may not have found the right maker. I suspect the prices may be quite high.

Crochet and Knitted Shawls

Great thing about these is you can make them your own. There are several patterns available in magazines and guide books. Many of these patterns are available digitally through Accessible Archives and online from various sites.

If you are purchasing a shawl, be sure to ask where the pattern design came from and what fibers the shawl is made out of. The shawl patterns above are worked in wool or silk.

Orenburg Lace Shawls

Fibers, weave and size – These should be 100% wool

Design – See originals

Where to look: – These are available from the same places the Pavlavo shawls are available. But not all are 100% wool. These should be square and very, very fine. The idea is they could fit through a wedding band. Most of the ones I see listed on Ebay don’t look like they have been blocked (set to the square shape.)

Sizes & Shapes:

  • Square shawls should be in the range of 55 inches to 70 inches square with 64 inches square being standard.
  • Long shawls are double squares, sometimes called plaids, which should be 55 inches wide by 110 inches long to 70 inches wide by 140 inches long with 64 inches wide by 128 inches long being the most common.
  • Three-quarter shawls are 3/4ths the width and 3/4ths length of a standard double square shawl. A three-quarter shawl would be 48 inches wide by 96 inches long.
  • Scarves are much longer than they are wide. A shawl 3 feet by 9 feet would be considered a scarf. These were more popular earlier in the 19th century.

The exceptions to these standard sizes include lace, knit or crochet shawls.

Next, consider weight. One of the mistakes I observe is the use of wool which is more of a blanket weight than a shawl weight. The weight of fabric is determined in ounces per linear yard. If you want to think of wool weights in terms of modern suit weights, a tropical weight is the lightest and regular is generally the fabric worn for a winter suit.


Paisley family shawl, possibly Scottish

Shawl Terms

Border Pattern Pattern that is predominantly in the border area around the field. This pattern is very visible when worn in a triangle over the shoulders.

Cashmire French word for shawls with the pine pattern both of Oriental and European origin.

Chenille Shawl A shawl of Paisley, Scotland invention with a comprised of tufted silk, wool or cotton. This shawl was briefly fashionable in the 1820s but was un-washable. (Reilly, p.34)

Damask Shawl Reversible pattern with alternating colors on opposite sides made with a different color warp and weft. (Reilly p.34)

Diagonal Shawl Square crepe shawls with two different embroidered designs on opposite triangular halves. (Worth p. 52)

1. Providence in India. 2. Shawl made by weavers in the Kashmir.
Kirking Shawl A white centered shawl given as a wedding gift to be worn to church the first Sunday after the wedding.

Medallions Motive combinations located in corners, ends or centers of a shawl.

Paisley 1. The town of Paisley in Scotland. 2. The shawl with the cone or pine motif made in Paisley. 3. The individual design of a single pine or cone motif. 4. Overall design comprised of multiple pine motives. Green Plaid Wool Shawl

Plaid 1. Rectangular, double square shawl that came into fashion in the 1840s with the crinoline skirt. “A new size of shawl, called the plaid, was produced.”(Reilly, p8.) 2. Tartan based design of alternating warp and weft threads.

Pine motive or Cone motive Basic flower design surrounded by a border in a tear shape . This is the design we have come to identify as the “paisley”. In India it was call “Buta” meaning “flower”. Kashmir designs tend to have a short, simple, plump pine while European designs became more elongated and stylized.

Point Shawl A triangular half shawl; generally a shawl of lace, knit or domestic make. Some shawls are described as single, double or triple point.

Reversible Shawl A woven paisley type shawl with the same design on both sides. Not being made until 1865.

Standard nineteenth century shawl dimensions “The long shawls being more esteemed than the square ones, and considered articles of luxury, it is by no means unusual for dealers to cut the former in two, in order to evade the higher duty, and to have the two halves fine-drawn together afterwards.” (Scientific American, December, 7 1850).

Scarf or Stole Shawl – Primarily ornamental – 9 feet x 20 inches Square Shawl – Up to 6 feet x 6 feet Handkerchief Shawls – 3 feet x 3 feet (called so due to customs fees) Plaid Shawl or Long Shawl or Double Square Shawl – 10 feet x 5 feet Three-quarter Plaid Shawl – 8 feet x 4 feet

Turn-over Shawl A shawl that when folded in a triangle, shows all four finished borders. This is done by attaching 2 borders on the right side and 2 on the wrong side.

Zebra-Stripe Shawl A striped shawl with a floral or paisley motive in the stripes, which was fashionable throughout the 1800s. (Reilly p. 36)

Published in: on July 1, 2009 at 11:29 am  Comments (2)  

2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This was very informative! I have just over 4 yards of 54″ wide (I think) very fine silk sheer sitting in my stash that I would really like to use for something. It is very lightweight and delicate and I would most certainly starch it. Would it be appropriate for a sheer shawl as you described?
    You also mentioned finishing it with a rolled hem, but that this was not how period sheer shawls were finished. How were the period shawls finished?

  2. You can give it a try. You can lightly fringe the edges, roll hem the edges and add hand worked fringe or roll the edges. The rolled hem does appear on embroidered shawls and earlier 19th century shawls. Are you focusing on mid-19th century?

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