Shawls - A Fashion Accessory



Although the glory of the once flourishing shawl trade as a fashion accessory departed long ago, many collectors find this article of clothing a stunning reminder of beautiful craftsmanship in the textile industry. While the shawl has not been in popular favor for many years, for centuries it had a reputation for utility as well as convenient and comforting qualities. Many collectors seek antique shawls to add to their costume collections or to use as a decorative accent piece draped over a sofa or chair.


Popular Shawls

Shawls have been made of nearly all textile materials including wool, silks and even printed gauze — so delicate, flimsy and fragile that few survived till today. The plaid shawl was a kind of shawl whose pattern gave its name to all checked designs. A beautiful crepe shawl was made by the Chinese from a hand-spun silk, from which the gum had not been removed. The early 19th century Barege shawls, a woolen fabric made at Barege, France, was highly valued. Beginning in the 1920s, the custom of wearing shawls had almost completely passed away in Europe and America; consequently their manufacture correspondingly declined.


Shawl Styles

Cashmere Shawl: The cashmere shawl is of a very soft fabric made from the wool of the Cashmere goat, of the highest quality made from Kashmir, India. We scarcely know a truer test of a gentlewoman’s taste in dress than her selection of a Cashmere shawl, and her manner of wearing it.
Shawls of Paisley Design: Definitive article on the Paisley shawl. Paisley shawls were in fashion from 1790-1870. It was the woven Kashmir shawls which first caught women's imagination, with European manufacturers quick to emulate by weaving or printing. During this time millions were woven, embroidered and printed.
Kashmir Shawl: Outstanding shawls dating from the early to mid-19th century. Several passed down from one generation to the next. Some of the shawls were produced in Kashmir, India, and the others came from European manufacturers.


Paisley Shawl & Cashmere Shawl

A shawl is described as follows: "An outer garment, generally in the shape of a square or double square, folded in the middle, worn usually by women, but not infrequently by men.” The most famous and beautiful shawls were the Cashmere shawl, those made from the inner wool of the Cashmere goat. They were produced on hand looms with heir patterns, which remained practically unchanged for ages, and were produced either by weaving or embroidery. Toward the beginning of the nineteenth century the manufacture of imitation Cashmere shawls was begun in Europe, and particularly at Paisley, Scotland, where a pure wool shawl, the infamous Paisley shawl, was made at a comparatively low price, rivaling in beauty the true Kashmir shawl.


Wool Shawls

A full-sized ordinary wool shawl of the woven sort was from 1-3/4 to 2 yards in length and width, but usually a little oblong in shape. The quality was either wool or worsted, but the former was the best adapted for the idea of the fabric — soft and woolly, without being felted. The fabric and texture of the typical wool shawl was light in weight in comparison with other clothing fabrics, but the texture was close and smooth on account of the construction threads being spun to a fine size and woven appropriately tight by a well-balanced weaving plan. The pattern style was either entirely plain, made from one sort of yarn, or a neat style of pattern from different yarns; but with these there was likely to be a conspicuously distinct part near each side and end of shawl, formed by one or more different colors of yarn, perhaps arranged in a particular order. These distinct parts were called borders, and were from about five to nine inches in width and length. Outside of these borders there was another part, the same as the body of the shawl, known as the margin; this was about three inches in width and length, and separated the borders from the fringes of the shawl. But the pattern style was in the form of a large sized check, a tartan style or otherwise, and in this event the borders and consequently the margins were likely to be omitted.


Fringe Shawls

The fringes were a conspicuous characteristic of the shawl, and enhanced the appearance as well as the value. They were shaped like a thick soft cord, extending about four and a half inches from the edge of the fabric, all around. The yarn provided for fringes on the sides of the shawl consisted of loose filling threads woven between the edge of the fabric and a narrow selvage of strong cotton yarn, drawn in and reeded an appropriate distance apart from the regular warp. The yarn for fringes on the ends of the shawl was loose warp threads of an appropriate length, drawn from the warp beam after the weaving of a shawl had been completed.   

The fringes were formed by the operator placing a suitable number of threads in the open left hand, and after dividing them into two equal parts with a narrow space between, rubbing them the opening way of twist by the open right hand, well up the left wrist, where they were brought together, then rubbed back as one to the starting point in the same manner. This operation was called "purling" and was commonly carried out by hand by attaching the shawl at full open width to a wooden frame suspended from above, whereby the purler was able to move freely around and execute the work. To keep the fringes from slackening out before the shawl had received wet finishing treatment, a fine, strong cotton thread was laced through the center of fringes; this was removed after the article had been wet finished and dried.

There were also shoulder shawls, similar to the others, but smaller in length and width, and the borders were often discarded. These were more for undress than a full dress purpose, and were usually worn across the shoulders, but sometimes they were also used as a head covering, for which purpose they were quite convenient. On account of the utility and cheapness of a shawl, it was still quite popular with certain classes of people. The odd or old yarns accumulated in a mill were sometimes worked up into such articles and sold at a bargain price.


Plaids Shawls

Ordinary plaids belonged to the same class as ordinary shawls, the only difference being that the former were fringed only at the ends. The fabrics were generally about the same in weight and quality, and as a rule similar pattern styles of "shepherd checks" and "clan tartans" were produced in both plaids and shawls. Therefore, it was quite convenient to manufacture them side-by-side in a wool or worsted goods mill, and this was usually done. Pastoral shepherds as a class clung to the plaid, and preferred its comfort to that of any other article of top clothing. Unlike the ordinary shawl, however, although the plaid was not worn as much as formerly, it had not lost much popularity for certain purposes, and on some extraordinary occasions, when the skirl of the Scottish bagpipes was heard, the wearers of the plaid were legion and the sight was inspiring as of old. Traveling plaids — sometimes called rugs — were similar in form to the ordinary sort, but the fabric was invariably thicker and heavier in weight, and frequently there was a distinct plaid pattern on each side. This sort of plaid was always a staple article and was well patronized by travelers and tourists.


Knitted Shawls

Other kinds of woolen shawls had been introduced from time to time to serve purposes similar to those described. But although the newer kinds were by far the most fashionable and highest in public favor, it is doubtful if they were used for as many purposes or given as much comfort as knitted shawls. These shawls were knitted instead of woven, therefore the fabrics were more open and stretchy with a coarser and rougher texture. Consequently it can be readily understood why the protecting or comforting property should not be as great as in the woven shawls.

However, there is no doubt about the wide popularity of the knitted shawls and the number of people kept busy by the knitting. This was both a commercial and a household industry, as the articles were produced from yarn both in public knitting factories and in private homes, hence a person could either buy a shawl in the regular way, or knit the same at any time and place. Taste and fashion varied so much along this line that is was possible that a woman with particular ideas or preferences would not see the sort of shawl she wanted in a retail store, and proceeded to make it herself, rather than purchase one of another kind; or it may be that some just loved to knit. This work became quite popular and was commonly practiced in homes as well as in public places. The aptitude of ladies for hand-knitting was well demonstrated by their efforts in connection with the Red Cross during WWI.