The Shawl – May 1921

The shawl is still the main head dress of women in all corners of the earth. When it is a small square made of cotton or muslin, we may call it a handkerchief if we choose but that does not alter the fact that it is a small shawl draped over the head to protect it either from cold or heat and to confine the hair.

Civilised fashion has shaped straw and silk and velvet and decorated with flowers and feathers to tempt our vanity but the vast majority of women, chiefly peasants, fisherwomen, factory workers etc., cling to the simple square draping the head and shoulders and no other shape we can devise drapes so gracefully, else the brides would be having their veils a new shape every two years. The most common head dress of Eastern countries where the sun is very hot is a piece of cloth wound round the head. We copy this on a frame and call it a toque.

As an article of fashionable dress the shawl went out of fashion in Europe about 50 years ago and shawls are now kept as heirlooms, wraps for infants or put to various uses such as sofa rugs. (I have seen a large Paisley draped over a Chesterfield, tucked in and knotted all over the arms till it formed a splendidly fitting cover), dining room, table-covers, portiers and also in these latter days, jumpers.

A dress maker told me it grieved her to have to cut up the beautiful old shawls which were sent to her. In the east this would be looked upon as an affront to one’s ancestors as the fine shawls are handed down from generation to generation.

Although we are accustomed to speak of the Paisley pattern, Paisley weavers had no originality of design. The manufacture of the shawls was established at Paisley and Norwich and a few French towns about the beginning of the 19th century to supply the large demand for a cheaper form of the handsome shawls which had hitherto been all imported from the east.

The Eastern designs were faithfully copied and the large cone which is such a common characteristic of all these home woven shawls is Indian and has been a prominent feature in their woven patterns from earliest antiquity. Probably it is a form of gourd.

Although we in the west have ceased to wear dressy shawls there is a large demand for them in Asia and Eastern Europe. The Chinese Cashmere wool is spun from the soft downy under-wool of a Tibetan goat It is all dressed and spun by hand and may cost £2 10s per lb. It takes three men a year to make a shawl and a fine one might cost — before the war —£300 on the spot before it was imported to Europe, and that allows only £50 to each worker. A Cashmere shawl, fine enough to go through a wedding ring was a favourite wedding gift from Queen Victoria and we can see that, in money, it was a valuable one

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