What is a Sarape?

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

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 The garments were originally made in Coahuila, which is in north-eastern Mexico.

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

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.

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

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.

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

In addition to her work as a freelance writer for wiseGEEK, 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.

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Discussion Comments


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


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.


@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.


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!


@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.


@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.


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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