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 city 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).