Weaving Prayer Shawls

 

Weaving the Tallitot
February, 2001

MWFA member, Brigitte Weber, an experienced weaver and weaving instructor, has been helping members of the Jewish community to weave prayer shawls, or tallitot.  Brigitte shares the excitement of the weavers when they remove their creations from the looms and they savor the satisfaction of having created a tallit with special significance for their family. In the words of Malca Braker and Harriet Lyons, the two volunteers from the synagogue who coordinate the program, “In our classes, we ‘Interweave’ the historical and religious significance of the tallit, tzitzit, and the rules of kashrut.”

While Brigitte has been an instructor in the program for the past seven years, this award-winning project was begun in 1983 with the purchase of six table looms by the Sisterhood of Shaarey Zedek, a Winnipeg synagogue. The women wanted to learn to weave tallitot as a family experience for the bar and bat mitzvah. Since then, there have been Spring and Fall classes each year and many beautiful tallitot have been woven and presented to grateful recipients.

The tallit, or prayer shawl, the name of which is derived from the Hebrew-Aramaic word meaning “to cover”, is one of the best-known woven Jewish textiles for personal use. It has been traditionally worn by men during prayer and is now increasingly worn by women as well. The tallit is a rectangular cloth which holds the tzitzit, or ritual fringes on its four corners. The size can vary from about 20″ to 45″ wide by 5’ to 6’ in length. The tzitzit serve as reminders to uphold all of God’s commandments. The central section is adorned with an atarah, a piece of cloth generally 3 to 6 inches wide and 28-30 inches long, affixed to the tallit where it rests on the neck and shoulders of the wearer. Sometimes a prayer is woven or embroidered into the atarah. The tallit is not considered to be a garment worn for warmth, but rather it should be designed to be light enough to drape comfortably on the shoulders.

There are no prohibitions on the colors which may be used in making the tallit, although traditionally they were cream colored with black stripes. There is a long association of the colours blue and white with Jewish tradition, but many beautiful colour combinations are used in weaving tallitot these days. With regard to the fibres that are used, there is a strict prohibition against making a garment with linen in any combination. All other combinations of fibres, such as silk and wool, or cotton and wool, or wool and silk may be used. Synthetic threads are also frequently used. The rigid-heddle looms used by the weavers in these classes allow a sett of 10 e.p.i. and while pickup and tapestry techniques are sometimes used, generally the weaving is done in tabby with weft stripes arranged in an order which is repeated at both ends of the tallit. The first 24 inches woven on the 4-yd. warp is separated from the remaining length and is used to sew the tallit bag, which is used for carrying or storing the tallit.

Brigitte says, “These young women usually have no weaving experience, yet they produce a beautiful and creative piece of weaving in the prayer shawl they make for their son, daughter, or husband. Their efforts are truly a labour of love.”

This project is an excellent example of community outreach by a member of the Manitoba Weavers and Fibre Artists. Such activities are a valuable educational resource in our local community and also serve to increase awareness in the appreciation of fibres and textiles.

 

References:

1.  Handwoven, January/February 1989, Volume X Number 1. “The Work of the Weaver in Colors” by Phylllis W. Kantor.

2.  Handwoven, November/December 1998, Volume XIX, Number 5. “Weaving Jewish Textiles” by Laurie J. Kimmelstiel.

3.  The Weaver’s Journal, Volume VI, Number 1, Issue 21, Summer 1981. “A Tale of a Talis” by Katherine Sylvan.