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The Shawl - Man's Oldest Garment
When the Little Corporal became Emperor of France it is said he affected white soft leather trousers, a new pair every day. So the story of Josephine and her 400 Kashmir shawls is likely true. After she had appeared several times in the same Kashmir shawl, Napoleon snatched it from her shoulders and threw it into the fireplace.
Josephine wept. "You have burned my favorite shawl," she said.
"An Empress," Napoleon answered, "has no favorite. Never let me see you wear the same garment twice."
"Shawl" comes from the Oriental word "schal," but the garment itself is as old as man. It gave warmth, adornment and concealment. It was worn about the waist, hung from the shoulders, draped over the head and the left or right shoulder depending on the country, custom or religion.
It was drawn to conceal the face of fierce chieftain or luminous-eyed beauty. A single flip of it about the person gave dash to the cavalier or displayed the charms of woman. The Peking man a million years ago flung a furred hide about his body and tied it above his left shoulder, leaving his hunting arm free.
A far cry from this are the exquisite saris which the Hindu couturier, Princess 8ummaire, brought to Paris and which were said to be the most costly garments in that city. Other "Eastern" shawls include the batik decorated sarongs of Java, the Kashmirs of Northwest India, and the flower embroidered shawls which the Chinese long made for the Parsis -those Persians who fled to India but kept their ancient religion and costume.
Parsi shawls were said to be stitched so smoothly with silk thread on silk cloth the patterns looked as though they had been painted on. No right or wrong sides were apparent so beautifully done was the embroidering. The bright birds and flowers were so natural they seemed joyously alive.
India's Shawls Were Imported by Ancient Two Rivers' Cities
India's sari was probably the first shawl the city of Ur and the rising civilization of Mesopotamia imported. It is usually cotton, woven so thin you can read through it.
Dampened, the fabric all but disappears. It is four to nine years long, according to use, and over a yard wide. Bridal saris of red with white and green figures are made from warps and wefts, first tie-dyed, then matched in the loom, taking high artistry.
The sari's woven, printed, tie-dyed, or embroidered field has narrow borders at the sides and deep ones at the ends. Sometimes gold coin dots are woven through the field and the borders are of gold cloth, bright with silk flowers. Part silk at the borders adds strength.
Kashmir shawls were worn by Hindu men but the Western world bought them for women. For a time they were a part of almost every society girl's 'trousseau.
Some shawls were heavy with silver and gold threads, making bright details in the pattern. The most expensive were of finest wool. These are said to have cost from $800 to $3,000 apiece. One report said a typical seven pound shawl cost $1,500 in India about the mid-19th century.
Men wove the shawls, shawl pieces, and shawl cloth, using plain or twilled weave. Finally the woven material was cleaned in clear cool water and smoothed by stretching it on wooden cylinders. Women sewed the shawl pieces into shawls with very fine stitches and even exquisite embroidering.
Wide borders were generally woven separately and joined to the field with invisible stitches. Decorative designs of both the woven and embroidered Kashmir shawls favored the ancient flame of the Zoroastrians, also called buta (butha), pear, or river loop. Flowers usually filled this emblem. The cobra design was a favorite in India. Cincinnati's Art Museum has a wonderful collection of lvashmir shawls.
Alexander's Women Wore Kashmir Shawls
Kashmir shawls came to Europe with Alexander the Great's returning army. What competition they must have given Greece's white himation and colorful chiton. Roman shawls included the men's toga, first a semi-circular affair, possibly the progenitor of the cavalier's cape; later an 18 by 7 foot oblong - badge of Roman citizenship and forbidden to foreigners.
The Roman woman's palla, a square or oblong of wool, was worn like 'the Greek him.ation, covering head and shoulders at will. Silk was seldom used in Europe then as it cost more delivered in Rome than its weight in gold.
The Franks and Gauls kept their bright dyed saggums or squares of wool till the Crusaders brought the long shawl from the East. But the kings of France who set Europe's fashions for years promoted clinging silks and thread-lace shawls such as Point de France. Empress Eugenie favored blond lace and later Chantilly's black lace shawls so adored by Godey's ladies.
Spanish Manta and Moorish Haik Preceded Mantillas
European shawls were also fur faced "stuffs" suited to the cold stone castles. The sheer knit shawls for milder days were much like Shetland's zephyr-light lace knits today which, though large, weigh only a few ounces. The Scotch then, as now, wove their worsted plaids or tartans.
Spain had her plaid or manta, cousin to the saggum and tartans, but the Moor brought his veiled woman with her gauzy haik. So the long black scarves and lace mantillas began draping head and shoulders of Spanish ladies.
Then the exploring Portugese brought the Manton de Manila - that same fringed and flower embroidered silk shawl the Chinese had made for the Parsis, but shipped from Manila because of political conditions in China. This Manton became the Spanish shawl, symbolic of fiery charm, immortalized by Carmen who whirled it about her lovely self with such devastating effect on the men in her life.
Feathers, Skin, Bark and Fiber Made American Shawls
America had her shawls. Mexican weaving gave rain-proof serapes. Old ones, some woven in two strips and sewed together leaving the slit for the head, often had a large diamond filled with small designs such as the zigzag or lightning pattern, with a "god's eye" square-in-square at the corners of the diamond. Modern serapes often are of many colored stripes woven straight across, like the Saltillo.
Perhaps Hopi and Navajo shawls are best known. The Hopi weave straight across. The Navajo join their designs in the background, making slanting, uneven lines sometimes called "lazy lines."
Local plants gave secret 'tribal dyes, but now store dyes are used. Designs include the buffalo rectangle, T-shape tree, tentshape tipi, stair step mountain and others.
Tree branches make posts and cross piece for most looms. Collectors look for small natterns, vegetable dyes, smooth yarns and fine textured surface, plus wanted colors.
Rabbit skins cut and woven made winter shawls; pueblo sheep herds furnished wool for the symbolically designed Indian blankets. Ancient Hopi shawls were made of ,yucca, animal hair, birds' down, or cotton. The Hopi bride covered herself with a white cotton shawl and carried another, wrapped in a reed mat, to her mother's house to complete her marriage ceremony.
The far north Chilcat "shawl" of wild mountain goat hair and shredded yellow cedar bark, shows the bear or killer whale designed in dark outline on a yellow ground. The feathered mantles of Aztec chiefs which so enamored the Spanish Conquistadores, live on in the feathered weavings of Southern Indians.
The striped serape of Mexico is child of the Aztec timatli. The Inca woman's brilliant lliclla and the Chilean and Argentine bold chiripa, like the well known poncho and rebozo, are sought by collectors of Americana. But probably the most prized American shawl today is the painted and sometimes porcupine quill decked buffalo hide, soft as chamois, which wrapped the bronze shoulders of the prairie warrior and his dark-haired sweetheart.