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Differences between a scarf, shawl, wrap and stole.

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People often ask me what are the differences between a scarf, shawl, wrap and stole.

There seems to be a fair amount of confusion about these terms and no wonder as they are frequently used interchangeably.

For those who want to be fashion term savvy, here's the scoop:

All four names represent finished pieces of fabric that are worn. They can be made from natural fibers such as silk, cashmere, wool, cotton and linen, or man-made fibers such as acrylic and polyester.

Often for decorative purposes, natural and man-made fibers are used in the same scarf; for example, a metallic gold (man-made fiber) thread may be used to embroider a wool (natural fiber) scarf.

A shawl refers to a larger item, usually rectangular, but sometimes triangular or square in shape that can be wrapped around the body. Shawls are worn by men and women.


They add a lovely finishing touch to an outfit and can be worn for warmth or can be purely decorative or both.

Shawls are used to accent an outfit, to keep the chill out, for prayer and to cover bare shoulders in formal attire; in short, a highly versatile addition to anyone's wardrobe.

A stole is very similar to a shawl. The term probably derives from the ancient Roman stola, which is the woman's version of the men's toga.

The term stole today is usually used to describe a formal wrap, basically a shawl made of an elegant fabric, often not as wide as a shawl, but long enough to drape around the body.

The word stole is also used to describe a wide decorative sash that is draped over the shoulders as in a graduation stole or a liturgical stole.

A Woman's Evening Stole

This brings up the modern term “wrap” which nowadays is used for both shawls and stoles.

Are we confused yet?

A Scarf. Scarves can be thin and long: think of a typical winter wool scarf or they can be square: think of a classic silk scarf. In other words, the term is usually used to describe a fabric item that can be wrapped or tied around your neck for warmth and or style. Scarves can be casual or formal and everywhere in-between.

Small Square Scarves are called bandanas, neck scarves or neckerchiefs and are made of a light material, usually silk, but also cotton and linen. Small squares can be worn so many ways: try one tied around your neck, your head, your purse handle, a ponytail or your belt loop for a fun dash of color.

Foulards are the classic women's fashion scarf, 90cm (35-36”) and are usually made of silk. It's a versatile size that can be worn as a head scarf, or around the neck or waist. This size has made a wonderful return in popularity.

Last but not least are Oversized Square Scarves which are 120cm-140cm (47” -55”) or sometimes even larger that can be worn as a head scarf, wrapped around the shoulders as a shawl or worn around the hips. This size is becoming quite popular for men as well, wrapped around the neck in loose folds.

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  • jennifer: October 08, 2016

    Sorry the ? At the end of my comment was in error and not meant to be sarcastic. I, truly appreciated the tutorial.

  • jennifer: October 08, 2016

    What a fantastic explanation for all of these. I, believe the educational ones have also been referred to as “cords”, denoting special honours received, as my son pointed out to me. Great tutorial as a knitter I, believe we should be aware of the proper name of things. We we wouldn’t call a boot a sock, just because it goes on the foot. Thanks for the refresher ?.

  • Elizabeth Perkins: January 06, 2016

    Usually scarves that are sewn like you describe are called either a “mantel”, “ruana” or “poncho”

  • Nita Cook: December 29, 2015

    Very helpful, but I’m wondering what the shawls are called that have seams that make them sort of a loose jacket.
    They are very popular now, I have several, and I just wondered if they have a special name. Thanks

  • Kay: November 27, 2015

    For ages this has bugged me! I always thought of a scarf as a square piece of material that one wore on their head and I could get the long but narrow silk scarfs. The long, bulky and warm winter ones are what bothered me. They didn’t seem like a scarf…I missed a beat somewhere along the line.

    Now I can breathe and quit trying to make up names for them…instead of just pointing and saying, “Look at that!”

    Thank you for distinguishing the differences! I now wonder why I waited so long to search for an answer.

  • Laura: November 12, 2015

    I would add that a graduation stole is not merely decorative; it denotes a degree achieved. Liturgical stoles can be decorative, but they also are given at ordination (at least in the Reformed/Presbyterian church), so while a person who is not ordained may wear a stole, for an ordained person it is an indicator of office.

  • Lana: August 11, 2015

    Very helpful thanks

  • deepak mehta: June 29, 2015

    It is very useful information and confusion to each name is now clear to me.

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