In common with other Jewish communities, the S&P have always called the prayer shawl a "tallet" - not a "taleet" (or "tallit") as modern Hebrew would have it.
The S&P have quite wide tallets, usually of silk with pale blue stripes, and wear them draped over their shoulders as shawls (not merely around the neck like a scarf), with all four tsitsiot (fringes) in front. Today - with silk replaced by rayon, which is of questionable validity for making a tallet - modern woollen tallets (usually with white stripes) are more commonly worn by the rabbis and some members of the congregation, often folded back over the shoulders in the Ashkenazi manner (because the dimensions are different, and they don't work as shawls).
In common with several other Sephardi communities, there is a tradition of embellishing and personalising the tallet with embroidered squares on its corners, though this lovely practice has fallen somewhat into disuse in recent years. While in Holland and elsewhere these corners would be brightly coloured and include elaborate designs, in London they tended to be a traditional monogram embroidered in white, pale-blue or gold on a plain white background (see below for more examples), similar to traditional English table-linen monograms.
For most occasions, when a top hat is worn, the tallet is not worn over the head. However Kohanim reciting the priestly blessing, and the person blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashannah, wear the tallet pulled up-and-over their top hat.
There is a reference to coloured tallet corners in this description of the Creechurch Lane synagogue (which preceded Bevis Marks), dated 1662.
To see the complete letter (page 9 of the PDF extract) click here.
Cape vs Shawl
The blessing said when putting on the tallet is "Lehit'atef betsitsit" - to wrap ourselves in the fringes. This has been interpreted in two distinct ways:
The cape: The custom from Eastern Europe is to fold the ends over each shoulder so that two of the tsitsiot are in front and two are behind the wearer - rather like a cape. To facilitate this the tallet has evolved almost square proportions. Although there are various suggestions for performing some kind of "wrapping" around the head and/or shoulders at the time of the blessing - in an attempt to fulfill a more literal "wrapping" - it seems that the main understanding of "wrapping" according to this custom is in the sense of "surrounding" - surrounding oneself with the tsitsiot.
The shawl: The custom in the West, among Sephardim, Ashkenazim, and among Yemenites, is to wear the tallet as a shawl. Literally a "prayer shawl". For this purpose the tallet proportions tend to be more oblong, though wide enough to cover the wearer's back. Proponents of the first method point out that when worn this way one is not "surrounded by the fringes" (i.e. with two in front and two behind), but in fact the wearer is wrapped in the tallet itself, which is a far more literal interpretation of the word used in the blessing!
The scarf (not): It should be pointed out that many modern art silk tallets of the shawl type are really no more than scarves, and a scarf is not be a tallet (and indeed a scarf does not require tsitsiot). The general consensus is that in order to qualify as a tallet it must be big enough to cover the head and most of the body of an 8-yr old child, and be worn over the shoulders and not just round the neck.
While it is not my intention to decide between the first two traditions, the second is clearly the S&P tradition, and I regret that many people brought up with it were persuaded to change to the first - due to the unavailability of suitable tallets of large enough size and appropriate proportions (oblong rather than square), or the mistaken impression that the method they had been taught was inferior or even wrong.
Tallet corner examples
The tradition or embellishing the corners of the tallet is in line with the widespread Jewish practice of "hidur mitzvah", beautifying and personalizing the performance of our religious obligations as an expression of our love for them, and as a way of counteracting the natural tendency to perform things out of rote and purchase our mitzvot "ready-made".
1. This monogram dated just over 100 years ago is from the London S&P, and is on display at Bevis Marks Synagogue. Interestingly it has my initials! (Photo Jonathan Cohen)
2. Another traditional English example. (Courtesy of Estelle Levy)
3. This one is probably from Calcutta, India. The monogram is English in style, while the floral embroidery would have been done either locally or in nearby Shanghai. (Courtesy of Estelle Levy)
4. and 5. Two examples of this S&P tradition that I saw on display at the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam. The one on the left at the back is of highly formal and professional Italianate embroidery, while the one in front on the right is more folksy and exuberant. (Photo Jonathan Cohen)
6. One of a magnificent set of Petit Point corners that were presented to my friend Rabbi Martin van den Bergh on his Bar Mitzvah, by his Dutch S&P grandparents. Note that there is no hole for the fringes to be tied through, so the corners are applied after the fringes, and cover the holes. This makes it easier to transfer them to a new tallet when necessary. (Courtesy of Martin van den Bergh)
The tsitsit (corner fringes) are tied in the traditional pan-Sephardi way (with a knot at each wind of the outer string; whereas the Ashkenazi custom is to wind continuously). However, they use the older configuration of 10-5-6-5 winds, rather than the later-developed configuration of 7-8-11-13 (which is now more common in non-S&P communities). (As a matter of interest, neither of these is the custom mentioned in Shulkhan Arukh, 7-9-11-13, which is not - to my knowledge - used in any community today!)
The S&P configuration represents the Tetragrammaton, being the numerical values of its four constituent letters: Yod (10 )- Heh (5) - Vav (6) - Heh (5), but of course does not have the same restrictions as a written version of the Tetragrammaton, being only a hint at it, rather than the actual letters.
The fringes are trimmed so they are all the same length, to beautify the commandment. The modern, kabalistically-inspired fad of not trimming the thread used for the winding even if it is significantly longer than the others, is of course not observed.
In 2013, looking through my late father's effects I came across this silk tallet, which I believe belonged to my great uncle Solomon. He attended services at the S&P synagogue in Maida Vale between 1933 and 1976.
Look at those hundreds of long, hand-tied silk tassles!
The dimensions of this tallet are 32" x 76" with an extra 12" of tassels at each end.
On my visit to Mikveh Israel, Philadelphia, in 2015, I was shown this tallet that belonged to Sir Albert Abdullah Sassoon of the famous Baghdadi-Indian dynasty, who lived in London (d. 1896). The corner embroidery is in raised, gold/metallic thread.
My thanks to Rabbi Isaac Sassoon and Prof. Herman P. Salomon for showing me this.
This tallet was obviously made for a large man and is much bigger than the one above (I know because I tried it on). Its dimensions are 44" x 94".
Here are the corners I designed and had embroidered for my own tallet. Can you make out my initials?
I was even able to obtain silk tsitsiot for a price, though regular woolen tsitsiot are perfectly acceptable for both woollen and silk tallets.
It is a comparatively recent custom to add a strip of embroidered material along one of the long edges of the tallet. The strip of material is known as an "Atara". The rationale behind it is to ensure that each of the four tzitziot is always worn in the same position (eg "front-right" or "back-left"), following a minority opinion that it is improper - having once worn a particular fringe in the prestigious "front-right" position - to relegate it to the back on another occasion.
Although a very nice idea, this new halachic stricture was by no means universally accepted, and traditional S&P tallets did not have an atara.
Nowadays, when we buy our tallets from bulk manufacturers, obviously the majority custom - or that perceived as the majority custom even if it was not originally so - takes over, and this has happened in the case of the atarah. It is virtually impossible to find a (manufactured) tallet today that does not have an atarah.