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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 terms 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 piece of fabric, usually rectangular, but sometimes triangular or square in shape that can be wrapped around the body. Shawls are worn by men and women. A shawl can be purely decorative, used to accent an outfit, used for prayer or can be made of wool or another warm fabric to keep the chill out, by wrapping around one's shoulders. They are also used to cover bare shoulders in formal attire, being decorative and practical at once. Shawls are a highly versatile and practical addition to anyone's wardrobe.

mens italian wool scarf shawl

 A wool shawl adds a lovely finishing touch to an outfit and can be worn for warmth or can be purely decorative or both. 

womens Italian shawl

A patterned shawl adds a decorative element to an outfit.

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 or evening 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.

womans silk evening stole    

A sheer silk evening stole adds elegance to a formal outfit.

A WRAP

is a modern term which is used to define scarves, shawls and stoles. It's not terribly descriptive because of its loose definition, but, it is a word that many people use nowadays.

A SCARF

  • Can be thin and long rectangles: think of a typical winter wool scarf that you wrap around your neck
  • Can be square: think of a ladies 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.

Below are descriptions of the variety of scarf shapes available:

Small Square Scarves

are called bandanas, neck scarves or neckerchiefs and are made of a light material, usually silk or cotton.

  • A classic bandana is around 19-20" square.
  • Neckerchiefs are larger, around 26" square. 

Both can be used and worn in the same ways.

Womans small silk square scarf bandana

The smaller bandana size is very versatile: try one tied around your neck, as in a knot or a loose triangle in front, wear one around your head as a head cover or headband, try one around your purse handle to give a punch of color to your outfit, tie one around your ponytail or braid it in a braid, or tie one on your belt loop for a fun dash of color. 

mens silk neckerchief

The larger neckerchief size is often used by men as an alternative neckwear to neckties, bow ties and ascots. In fact, they can be folded to look like an ascot or day cravat. They are very versatile and very dapper.

 

CLASSIC SILK SQUARE SCARVES OR FOULARDS 

 as they are called in Europe are the traditional women's fashion scarf and are usually made of silk. It's a versatile size (around 35-36" square) that can be worn as a headscarf, or around the neck or waist, styled in numerous ways. In the 50's and 60's this size was made famous by Hollywood divas and other famous women.

ladies Italian silk square scarf

The silk foulard has made a wonderful return in popularity, and for good reason. It's a fabulous way to update any outfit with style.

OVERSIZED SQUARE SCARVES

are 47”- 55” square and sometimes even larger that can be worn as a headscarf, wrapped around the shoulders as a shawl, worn around your neck in many different tying techniques or worn around the waist as a hip scarf. In short, a large scarf that can also be worn as a shawl. 

oversized silk scarf

When made from wool they are often called blanket scarves, meant to be worn as a shawl mantle in the cooler months.
When made from silk they become a versatile addition to your wardrobe because they can be styled in so many ways.

LONG OR OBLONG SCARVES 

are thinner rectangles, usually worn around the neck, styled in various ways or draped over your shoulders and belted. Not to be confused with a shawl or stole, which are wider. Made from wool, they keep you warm in the winter, muffler style.

womans long silk scarf

Made of silk, a long scarf becomes a chic fashion accessory that is flattering to every figure.

Hopefully, you now know the names of the different types of scarves and know the difference between the various terms, scarf, shawl, wrap and stole, and also have some new ideas of how you might wear them.

8 comments

  • 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

    Nita,
    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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