What Makes a Shawl a Shawl?

Here at Interweave Knitting Headquarters, February is shawl month! We are knitting, discussing, and celebrating shawls of all varieties this month, which has prompted us to ask the question: What is a shawl, exactly? Read on to find out what a shawl is, and what a shawl is not.

\ ˈshȯl \
Definition of shawl: a square or oblong usually fabric garment or wrapper used especially as a covering for the head or shoulders

Things that Make a Shawl a Shawl


Shawls are flat. There’s no getting around this one. Embellishments aside, shawls don’t have any kind of dimensionality to them. If your shawl is a tube, it’s a cowl, not a shawl. If your shawl has distinct shoulder shaping, it’s a cape, not a shawl. If it doesn’t lay flat on a table in one layer, it’s not a shawl.

The Swallowtail Shawl by Evelyn A. Clark, Interweave Knits Fall 2006. Photo by Chris Hartlove.

No Holes

In addition to being flat, shawls also lack any holes for appendages. I would argue that a flat shawl with a neckhole is a poncho, not a shawl. Likewise, those vests that are basically a large shawl with armholes are vests, not shawls. You can’t put any body parts through a shawl (aside from putting fingers through lace and STOP THAT RIGHT NOW are you trying to snag holes in your knitting?!).


A shawl is bigger than a scarf and less substantial than a blanket. A shawl is large enough to cover your shoulders; if it’s only wide enough to wrap around your neck, it’s a scarf. There are certainly shawl patterns that are blanket-sized, but they’re also made of whisper-light laceweight yarn; you wouldn’t put it on your bed to keep warm on a cold night. A bed-sized shawl made in a heavier yarn is a blanket, not a shawl.

shawl patterns

The Kline Shawl by Jennifer Dassau, knit.wear Spring/Summer 2016. Photo by Harper Point Photography.

How you wear it

How do you wear a shawl? The dictionary definition nails this: Shawls are worn covering your head or shoulders. You could argue that a table runner fits the criteria given here—they’re flat, don’t have any extra holes, and are bigger than a scarf/smaller than a blanket—but they’re placed on a table, not worn as clothing. (A table runner can most certainly be worn as a kicky accessory, provided there aren’t too many soup stains; however, once you do that, it’s a shawl, not a table runner.)

Things that Don’t Define a Shawl


I completely disagree with Merriam-Webster here. Clearly the shape is moot; not all shawls are square. (Also, what the heck shape is an “oblong?” It’s a descriptor, not a shape. I can imagine oblong ovals and rectangles; I have no idea what an oblong would look like, aside from being longer than it is wide. Hmmph, Merriam-Webster and your questionable geometry knowledge.) The most common shape right now seems to be triangles, but circular pi shawls are also super popular. And there’s no limit to the shapes of shawls: hexagons, octagons, parallelograms, trapezoids, funky non-planar shapes—they’re all possible!

shawl patterns

Caption: The Central Wrap by Mone Dräger, knitscene Winter 2019. Photo by Harper Point Photography.

Yarn Weight

Shawls can be made out of any weight of yarn, from lace to bulky. Although you might think of shawls as being lightweight pieces, there are some fantastic worsted and chunky shawl patterns that are also 100 percent bona fide shawls. Just like chihuahuas and mastiffs are both dogs, laceweight and heavy wraps are both shawls.

Stitch Pattern

Not all shawls are worked in lace patterns. Shawls can be made with cables, entrelac, or intarsia. They can also be traditionally found in both stockinette and garter stitch; they don’t have to have a fancy design to be a shawl.

Stay tuned this month for all shawls, all the time, and choose from over 400 Interweave shawl patterns to knit this month! What are your favorite shawl designs?

Top photo: The Squall Line Shawl by Romi Hill, published in Interweave Knits Fall 2015. Photo by Harper Point Photography.

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