Shawl season brings migrating words

Tuesday Oct 29, 2019

It’s now the time of year when you might be starting to think about throwing a shawl (or a wrap, or a hap) around your shoulders.

While thinking about the word hap, we discovered a surprising history behind the word shawl. What do you call these brilliantly simple garments?

Shetland shawls, or haps, on a hap board (hap stretcher) at Hoswick Visitor Centre during Shetland Wool Week
Shetland haps knitted by Anne Eunson and Kathleen Anderson, on the hap board in Hoswick during Shetland Wool Week.

Shetland shawls

Shetland is world-renowned for its knitted shawls but, as many of you will know, in these islands a shawl is also called a hap. The word is particularly associated with a relatively (!) simple square shawl, knitted with a garter ‘riggie’ stitch centre and a lace edging and border. 

I think I’m right in saying that hap is also used for the fine lace christening and wedding shawls, knitted in cobweb-weight woollen yarn. Like a pashmina shawl, the finest of these can pass through a wedding ring. 

Woman stands against a blue, wooden shed. She wears jeans and a fine knitted contemporary Shetland shawl in an abstract mottled pattern - in a deep turquoise blue and bronze.

Marlet wrap - probably my favourite piece of all the knits that I've designed.

Happed or wrapped 

Hap is a Scots verb meaning to wrap (up) with fabric. It is also a noun for a cloth covering (not just to clothe people, but also things like haystacks!) or blanket. At some point the word became associated with a particular garment: a hap, or shawl.

Where hap has survived in contemporary Shetland, it is no longer a commonly heard word in most of Scotland (it was also used in the north of England).

Like hap, the English verb wrap also has a history as a noun for covering, blanket or outerwear, subsequently becoming the name for an individual garment worn by women—a wrap.

A woman wears a simple, handknit shawl made from handspun, multicoloured yarn
A shawl knitted by my mother, from her own hand-dyed, handspun yarn. We have several of her pieces in the Nielanell studio.

Beauty in simplicity 

As a designer I find the simplicity of wraps and shawls compelling. These are the most basic pieces of clothing—an untailored piece of fabric—worn in all climates to shield us from extremes of weather, the gaze of others, or even just to give comfort when we’re having a bad day.

These pieces of cloth can protect us, making us look and feel quite different. They are also some of our most treasured garments—to be worn for decorative effect on special occasions and at celebrations, or as layer of costume rich with symbolism.

A shawl, or a wrap, or a hap is a popular present for a new baby, or an adult. One size really can fit all.

Byre modern shawl: a wrap with a huge wingspan, knitted in merino and inspired by the work of artist Karlyn Sutherland.

Designer of wraps, wearer and collector of shawls 

Mostly, I use the word wrap for my own, contemporary, designs. I tend not use the word shawl, unless I’m talking about something more traditional in style (or a smaller garment that sits on the shoulders). However, others in the Nielanell team do use shawl when describing my wraps (and I’m sure some customers do, too)! 

This is not to say that I don’t like shawls! I am a fan, owning some beautiful examples (I have even knitted some myself). Several are gifts made by friends and family. Isn’t it wonderful to be given a hug by a shawl gifted to you? 

Some pieces from my shawl collection

A large, circular hand-knitted lace shawl in rust coloured yarn. Shown on a vintage mannequin, pinned. Against a tongue and groove, blue door.

My friend Gloria, who I got to know through Ravelry (the social network for fibre fans), knitted me a beautiful rust coloured circular shawl.

Small shawl knitted in handspun Icleandic yarn in natural colours, photographed on a vintage mannequin against a light blue, panelled door.

I was also the lucky recipient of a shawl knitted by my friend Maja from her own Icelandic handspun yarn.

Fine knit Victorian hand-knit Shetland shawl in undyed white Shetland wool

Recently I added an incredibly fine Shetland hap, probably knitted in the 1880s, to my ever-expanding collection.

Fine shetland-style lace shawl knitted in hand-dyed, handspun yarn. In soft purples and blues with some beads.

Mavis Ross, a talented Shetland master of all the wool-arts, who I am very lucky to know, has spun and knitted numerous beautiful pieces for the studio.

Handknitted shawl in handspun yarn in purples and plums. With lace edging. Hangs over a contemporary Nielanell shawl in blues with an abstract pattern.

The studio also stocks some pieces by the clever all-rounder (and Shetland Wool Week tutor) Dj Stefek.

Traditional Shetland shawl - a 'hap' knitted in handspun Shetland yarn, naturally dyed with madder. Knitted and spun by Elizabeth Johnston

...And I absolutely covet the haps that Shetland treasure Elizabeth Johnston knits from her own naturally-dyed Shetland handspun. 

The origins of shawl

Perhaps, since a wrap is a garment worn worldwide, we shouldn’t be surprised that many languages use a variant of the same word (see below for notes on the words used in Europe). 

However, did you know that the English word shawl is actually derived from the Persian word shāl, which itself probably has its roots in Sanskrit?

19th Century Kashmiri shawl in the collection of the Cooper Hewitt. Reds with cream areas, lozenge shapes, black star-shaped centre. Edging with various colour blocks

19th Century Kashmiri shawl from the collection of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum [image: public domain].

It’s likely that shāl entered the English language via its adoption into Urdu (similar words are used in other languages spoken on the Indian subcontinent). At first, the word shawl was used to refer to fine, woven cashmere shawls imported to Britain from Kashmir—of course ‘shawls’ were worn in the West before the word arrived—but over time shawl became a commonly used word for this type of garment. See the notes below for the remarkable spread of this word across Europe and its languages.

Contemporary Shetland shawl knitted in yellows with blue detail. Abstract pattern of irregular dots

Ebb-stanes wrap: my reflection on borders, inspired by the Shetland landscape and my own family's experience during Indian partition.

Wrapped in words

To me the root of shawl is of especial interest because shaal is also the word used in Hindi, one of the languages my father grew up speaking. It seems incredible that, in Lahore—at that time part of India—he and my relatives would have been using essentially the same word used by my mother and her family in Aberdeenshire, in the north of Scotland. 

And of course in the 21st Century here I am in Shetland, one of the world’s great shawleries, working as a knitwear designer surrounded by knitters of shawls and haps (and wraps!) and visitors who come on pilgrimage to see them. This word shawl, which arrived in the British Isles via India, has in fact become synonymous with Shetland.

Given all this, it is ironic—some would say typical!—that I design wraps, not shawls.

Are you as interested in shawls and wraps and haps as we are? Do tell us what it is that you wear, or knit, or weave.

Fine traditional Shetland lace shawl in undyed natural white Shetland yarn

Fine Shetland lace shawl knitted by Kathleen Anderson, on display during Shetland Wool Week at the exhibition of Shetland Guild of Spinners, Weavers, Dyers and Knitters.

Notes on a migrating word

NB We have been making liberal use of the OED and Google Translate to find out more about shawls, as well as asking friends—please do correct us, and let us know what word you use for shawl and how you spell it, whatever languages you speak.

According to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), shawl appears to have entered into English via the adoption of the Persian word shāl into Urdu (similar words are used in other languages spoken on the Indian subcontinent). However the first use recorded in English, from 1662, is actually in the translation of a German traveller’s account of a fine ‘skarf’ called a schal, seen by the author in Persia, in the the 1630s. This schal might have been similar to the featherlight, woven Kashmiri pieces that are now often referred to as pashmina in the West. The word cashmere—derived from Kashmir—was also initially used as the name for particular shawls in English. Over time the English spelling of the new word took different forms, with schal or scial becoming shaul, finally settling as shawl in the 1780s or 90s.

Throughout this period, and into the 19th Century, shawl seems to have been associated with pieces imported from the Indian subcontinent, which had become fashionable in Britain. By the mid 19th Century, British business was heavily involved in the Kashmiri shawl industry—part of Britain’s colonial expansion. Kashmiri-inspired shawls were also being created cheaply, at a more industrial scale, on looms in Britain (the Scottish town of Paisley being a particular centre of production). The shawl is therefore part of the complicated and bloody history of the British Empire.

In one of my own designs I have reflected on the consequences of borders, both natural and manmade, with particular reference to the 1947 partition of India. My Ebb-stanes wrap has a line ‘drawn’ in wool across a background pattern inspired by natural landscape. 

English is not unusual in its adoption of shawl. The word used in German today—schal—is the same as appeared in the first instance in English, and there are remarkably similar words used across the northern and southern European languages: seàla, seabhal (two of the Scottish Gaelic words for shawl) seálta (Irish), siôl (Welsh), sjaal (Dutch and Flemish), sjal (Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish), châle (French), chal (Spanish), xal (Catalan), xaile (Portuguese), scialle (Italian), sáli (Greece). Moving further east we see the pattern continue: šal (Croatian, Serbian, Slovenian, Bosnian), szal (Polish), until we have the word we started with: shal (Russian). Finnish (huivi) and Hungarian (vállkendő) are quite different! In Turkish and Romanian the word is şal, in Kurdish it is şil, and in Arabic it is shal. The languages spoken in India and Pakistan seem to have retained their connection to the Persian word—Urdu, Hindi, Pashto, Bangla, Gujari and Punjabi all use a variant of shāl. Out of interest we looked at Japanese: there is a word for shawl that seems related – shōru. But in Mandarin and Cantonese we couldn’t see a word that was similar.

An interesting note from the DSL (Dictionary of the Scots Language): shawlie was used in early 20th Century Scotland and Northern Ireland, to refer to the working class women and girls who wore shawls over their head and shoulders. These might have been woven, or knitted (similar to the Shetland haps).

References & further reading 

Shetland haps

Read more on the Shetland hap in this interesting article by Louise Scollay of WoolWork (formerly KnitBritish):

Spotlight on haps

Shetland lace

Shetland Museum & Archives have several fascinating blog posts, written by Carol Christiansen: on the Museum's collection of knitted Shetland lace:

The lace project

History of Shawls

Paisley shawls in literature, an essay by Suchitra Choudhury for the V&A museum.

Knit your own hap

Designer Gudrun Johnston has a popular pattern for a hap (as a square or a triangle), based on the simple designs both worn by Shetland women and used as a baby shawl. 

Shawl shapes

Elizabeth Lovick has a book (available as hard copy or .pdf) on different shawl shapes.

Tagged with: making musings

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