Designing Shawls

The shawl or wrap is one of the most versatile accessories in your wardrobe, and like the scarf, it not only provides warmth, but adds decoration to an otherwise boring outfit, and is also one of the most popular projects among knitters. Knit shawls first appeared in “fashion” around the 1800s. During this time period, several traditions of lace shawl knitting began to flourish, most notably, Shetland, Orenburg, Estonian and Faroese shawls. Knit shawls waxed and waned in popularity over the decades, and by the early 2000s, there was a renewed interest in traditional shawl styles and shaping. The following describes common shawl shapes, and some tips on designing this beloved accessory.

Shawl Shapes

Most shawl designs are constructed from three simple shapes – square, rectangle, and triangle. There are many variations of these, and other geometric shapes from which to construct shawls, including crescent, asymmetric triangles, half-circles, and circles. The majority of shawls are knit flat using increases, decreases, or short rows to make the desired shape. They can also be worked in the round from the center out.

The simplest way to make a square or rectangular shawl is to cast on the desired number of stitches and work in one direction. If these shapes are composed of more complex stitch motifs, other construction methods are used, such as knitting from the outer edge of the square to the center, or joining two triangles in the center. A rectangular shawl may be worked in two parts from the edges to the center, rather than in one direction.

Triangular shawls are popular styles for the modern knitter. They can be shaped with increases or decreases, and the positioning of these determines the symmetry or asymmetry of the shawl. A symmetrical triangle is often worked from the neck edge down to the point, or from the point to the neck.

Crescent shaped shawls are variations of a half-circle. Short row shaping is often used to construct symmetrical or asymmetrical crescent shawls. As with other shawl shapes, they can be worked from different directions.

Circular shawls are often knit from the center-out, much like you would for a circular medallion.

These are the common shawl shapes, and worked in combination with yarns, stitch patterns, and colours form endless style ideas.

Yarns and Needles

Shawls can be made in any yarn thickness, from lace to aran weight yarns. However, lace and fingering weight yarns are favoured, because they show off lacy motifs. Tightly twisted, smooth merino wools and silks are the preferred fibers. Mohair blends, particularly combined with silk form a beautiful halo; also a favourite for shawl knitting. Hand dyed yarns form interesting colour gradations. Variegated or multi-coloured yarns work best with simple pattern stitches, or these yarns will obscure complex pattern motifs. Generally, shawls are a splurge worthy project; spend money on the best quality yarn.

Pointy knitting needles are a must for fine weight yarns; easily inserting into stitches. Many manufacturers produce special lace needles. At some point in the process, shawls often end up on circular needles to accommodate a large number of stitches. Usually, shawls are knit on larger needles than what is indicated on the yarn label to open up stitches, and add drape to the fabric.

Stitch Patterns

The sky is the limit when selecting stitch patterns, from simple garter stitch to lace, cables, texture, colourwork, and a myriad of combinations. Shawls may be embellished with beads, fringe, tassels, or crocheted edgings. Knit shawls provide a great landscape for experimentation.

Test Swatch

As with planning any design project, a large test swatch is critical, using the yarn and main stitch pattern of your choice. In addition to these basics, consideration must be given to the shape, size, and edgings or borders when planning the shawl design. You need to incorporate any edgings into the test swatch. Blocking test swatches is essential before determining the gauge. This information is key to the placement of stitch patterns and any required shaping. Chart instructions are commonly used for lace shawls and other complex stitch patterns.


Blocking a shawl is critical, to set its shape and to open up lace work. Wet blocking is the preferred method, giving better results than steam blocking, which can flatten fuzzy yarns and textured stitch patterns. After weaving in all the yarn ends into the completed shawl, I wash it and pin it out to its measurements on a blocking board and let it dry completely. A larger surface may be required, possibly two blocking boards. Lace shawls are easily blocked with blocking wires.

Historically, shawls were mainly worn to provide warmth; now they are a fashionable accessory. A shawl is one of the most popular projects for knitters, and for the beginner designer creating one from scratch is a great step up from the basic scarf, to hone skills and experiment with stitchery. The majority of hand knit shawls are based on three geometric shapes, and with a little creativity can be modified into an incredibly wide range of styles.