What Is a Sarape?

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel
Sarape are popular with people who live in Mexico.
Sarape are popular with people who live in Mexico.

A sarape is a colorful item of clothing that is worn by peoples in South America, Central America, and Mexico. Not to be confused with ponchos, sarapes are long rectangular garments that can be wrapped around the body much like a shawl for protection against cold and other natural elements. The garments were originally made in Coahuila, which is in north-eastern Mexico.

Mexican and Guatemalan sarapes are made in myriad patterns and colors.
Mexican and Guatemalan sarapes are made in myriad patterns and colors.

Coahuila is near the city of Saltillo. Textiles are still created in the Saltillo region today. The descendants of many of the people in Saltillo trace back to the early Chichimecs, a people who migrated from the Casa Grande area of Northern Mexico to central Mexico.

Sarapes that are made in this area are often referred to Saltillo sarapes. Textiles from this region are often designed with bright bands of color such as yellow, orange, red, or green, against a dark field such as brown or black. There are, however, sarapes that are made in lighter palates with white or cream fields and pastel bands. Like many shawls, the ends of sarapes are often fringed.

A sarape is a colorful item of clothing commonly worn in Central America.
A sarape is a colorful item of clothing commonly worn in Central America.

Sarapes have been made for many generations and they are still produced today. Sarapes of many different designs and qualities can be purchased in today’s market. In the main, they are sold in the Southwestern United States, or to shops dedicated to this region of the world. They may also be imported. Discerning buyers may seek out vintage sarapes. A vintage sarape may be interesting to a collector because of the craftsmanship or specific design evident in the garment.

Although the term sarape is meant to refer to a shawl, not a poncho, the term is used differently in Guatemala. In Guatemala, sarape is used to define a garment much like a poncho. In this country, sarapes are heavy wool blankets that have an opening in the center. The wearer inserts his head through the opening and wears the Guatemalan sarape as a poncho. Some Guatemalan sarapes are created with matching hoods to cover one’s head. In general, a sarape is long enough to reach the knees of a person of average height.

Although the color palates are often the similar in Guatemalan sarapes as Saltillo sarapes, the designs within the fabric are quite different. Furthermore, the use of bright colors in Guatemala sarapes is less common. Design patterns in Guatemalan sarapes are large and often incorporate Mayan motifs rather than simply bands of color. Guatemalan sarapes are generally handmade by women in the communities who use personal looms to create the garments. Then a broker, often a member of the community, takes the garments to local markets.

A sarape is only one of many different garments that are traditionally associated with Latin America. Some of these other clothes are also made of a single piece of fabric that is usually worn as a shawl, but they are distinguished from sarapes by size, cultural origin, or the method of wearing.

What is a Rebozo?

A rebozo is a fringed, patterned Mexican garment traditionally worn by women. A rebozo can be worn around the torse like a shawl, draped over the head, or even used to carry a baby on one’s back. Modern rebozos can be made from cotton, wool, silk, or synthetic materials; their colors and patterns vary greatly and can often be traced to specific parts of Mexico.

What Is a Poncho?

A poncho is a traditional Latin American cloak that is thought to have originated in the Andes Mountains. Ponchos are usually a single sheet of fabric with an opening for the head; they rest on the shoulders and keep the torso warm. Many also have hoods. As with sarapes, ponchos are traditionally handwoven and colors and designs vary from place to place. Some of the oldest ponchos discovered (in Peru) have elaborate embroidery depicting birds, monkeys, and other animals. Ponchos have been adopted and adapted by many cultures. Today the most familiar form in the US is probably a plastic rain poncho which usually has sleeves and closed sides; the US military has its own standard-issue ponchos. Ponchos made from many types of fabric are popular fashion accessories around the world.

What Is a Lliklla?

A lliklla is also a woven garment that originated in Latin America and drapes over the shoulders, but it is smaller than a poncho or a sarape and is held in place by pinning the edges together at the upper chest. It was developed by the Quechua people of the Andes and is traditionally worn by women.

What is a Huipil?

A huipil is a traditional garment worn by indigenous women throughout Mexico and Central America. A huipil consists of up to five rectangular pieces of cloth connected by ribbons or decorative stitching. A huipil is designed to fit very loosely and can be anywhere from waist-length to ankle-length. Huipils were invented well before the arrival of Europeans and their colors, embroidery, and other embellishments can vary considerably between areas. Traditionally they are made from handwoven cotton, but huipils sometimes use silk or wool instead.

What is a Guayabera?

A guayabera is a lightweight long- or short-sleeved shirt popular in many parts of Latin America. Guayaberas have verticle rows of very small pleats on both the front and back and either two or four pockets. Although the color and cuffs are similar to those on button-down dress shirts, guayaberas have a looser fit and are not tucked into the waistband.

What Is a Sombrero?

For Americans, the term “sombrero” usually refers to a wide-brimmed hat with a pointed crown and a chin strap that has historically been popular in Mexico, especially with cowboys. This type of sombrero can be made of straw or felt and is often worn by mariachi musicians as well. In Spanish, however, the term refers to any broad-brimmed hat worn to protect one’s face and neck from the sun (in fact the term “sombrero” comes from the Spanish word “sombra,” which means “shadow”). Different versions of sombreros are worn in various parts of Latin America and Spain.

What Is a Panama Hat?

A Panama hat is a lightweight brimmed hat woven from straw made from the leaves of the toquilla palm. Panama hats are often worn with summer suits and usually have a band at the base of the crown that can be either the same or a contrasting color as the rest of the hat. Although this type of hat became associated with Panama during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it actually originated in Ecuador. Today real Panama hats are still woven by hand and can be quite expensive. The best are generally considered to come from the Ecuadorian town of Montecristi.

What Is a Chullo?

A chullo is a woven hat traditionally made from alpaca or similar wool; it originated in the Andes Mountains, possibly with some influence from Spanish colonists. Unlike some other styles, chullos have earflaps.

What are Huaraches?

Huaraches are woven Mexican sandals developed before the arrival of Europeans. Traditionally they are made entirely of leather, although later versions sometimes have soles made from wood or woven string. Huaraches became popular in the US during the 1960s and today various versions are sold throughout North and South America, but traditional huaraches must be handmade and include woven leather.

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

In addition to her work as a freelance writer for CulturalWorld, Diane is the executive editor of Black Lawrence Press, an independent publishing company based in upstate New York. She has also edited several anthologies, the e-newsletter Sapling, and The Adirondack Review. Diane has a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. from Brooklyn College.

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

In addition to her work as a freelance writer for CulturalWorld, Diane is the executive editor of Black Lawrence Press, an independent publishing company based in upstate New York. She has also edited several anthologies, the e-newsletter Sapling, and The Adirondack Review. Diane has a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. from Brooklyn College.

Discussion Comments

anon953219

Could someone tell me when the sarape was first worn? Like the year?

JessicaLynn

I think it's neat that women in Guatemala are still able to make and sell sarapes from their homes. I feel like there aren't that many options for people to participate in cottage industry anymore, so it's cool this option still exists.

I think it must be nice for the people who purchase the sarapes too. I know I feel like a garment is a lot more valuable when it is handmade! I only hope the price reflects the fact that the sarape is handmade and the women get a fair wage.

KaBoom

@indemnifyme - You're right that sarapes do look good on some people. I have a good friend who favors bright colors. She went to South America and came back with a Saltillo sarape.

She wears it all the time, even though sarapes aren't exactly in style here on the East Coast. It looks really good on her though, maybe because I'm used to seeing her in bright colors. However, I don't know that I would be able to pull off something so eye catching!

I will say though, I am hoping ponchos or shawls come back in style sometime soon. They are so comfy and warm, sometimes I do envy my friend and her sarape just a little bit.

indemnifyme

I'm always amazed at the different styles of shawls that have evolved in different places in the world. For example, in the United Kingdom, there's a tradition of triangular lace shawls made of wool. These shawls keep you warm too, much like a sarape blanket, but look much different!

I guess if I had to choose which to wear, I would probably go with a triangle shawl. A brightly colored sarape wouldn't really suit me, I don't think. However, I have seen women wearing sarapes before, and they definitely look flattering on some people!

SteamLouis

@burcinc-- Sarapes Mexicanos can be in poncho style too. But the design is the same as Saltillo sarapes unlike the Guatemalan ones. The Guatemalan sarapes are really gorgeous too though.

The best part about sarapes is that they are almost always hand woven. It's something that someone has put a lot of effort into and I really appreciate that.

A few clothing stores have started picking up the design of a traditional sarape to make scarves and shawls for women. These are not hand made though and the fabrics are different, often synthetic. I prefer the original ones that are imported from South America.

burcinc

@burcidi-- I think you might be referring to a sarape Mexicano. There is no rule that a sarape has to be triangle in shape. But usually it is very wide so that it can be wrapped around. It's pretty similar to the Indian use of shawls in that way. (Indians from Southeast Asia, not Native Americans).

Sometimes though, sarape Mexicano is smaller in width and is meant to just be wrapped around the neck. I have many Mexican friends and during our graduation, they all wore special designed and embroidered sarapes as sashes. It's their way of representing their heritage and I think it's great.

I also have a sarape that my friend gifted me. It's blue with lots of striped colors in the center. I wear it in winter when I want a flash of color with my outfit. It looks really nice.

burcidi

The sarapes I've seen until now were actually more like scarves than shawls. It was just a long and thin woven fabric with really bright colors and fringes at the end.

I haven't been to South America but there are a lot of Hispanics at my college and I have seen a few wear a sarape during international events on campus. I've also seen them on sale at various fairs and markets.

Did I see something else and assume that it was a sarape I wonder? Or does a specific country or region use sarape scarves instead of shawls?

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