A Community Tallit Weaving Tradition in Winnipeg

28 July 2021
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When I began weaving my tallit—the traditional Jewish prayer shawl—I was already a handspinner and had sewing skills. However, I was isolated and didn’t know anyone else who was interested in weaving a tallit. I was also the first girl to wear a tallit, traditionally worn only by men, at the congregation where I grew up.

It became a family project. My mom found information in a DIY book called The First Jewish Catalog, edited by Richard Siegel and Michael Strassfeld. Following the references, she mailed away for instructions from New York City. A non-Jewish weaving teacher helped us. My dad drove me to her basement studio, and he and I took lessons on the floor looms there. My grandmother embroidered the prayer on the atarah (neck piece), and my mom sewed the pieces together. I tied the tzitzit, creating a series of specific knots on fringes at the four corners of the rectangular tallit, which represent the 613 commandments in the Torah.

Image description: Two yarmulkes on top of and beside a woven tallit in shades of cream and brown.

In Winnipeg two decades later, wearing my handwoven tallit, as usual, to Saturday morning services, I felt deeply moved by what I saw around me. I wasn’t alone—many others here had worked hard to make special handwoven, custom tallitot. I had to learn more.

In a Winnipeg synagogue in 2009, I spotted many handwoven tallitot (the Hebrew plural of “tallit,” the traditional Jewish prayer shawl) in the rows in front of me. I was a newcomer to Canada. This was an amazing surprise.

The tallit—a specifically Jewish, rectangular prayer shawl with knotted fringe at the four corners—has very specific, ancient requirements. It can’t be woven of a mixture of linen and wool, but cotton, wool and silk are common, and it’s okay to combine those fibres. It’s not meant to be clothing, but rather a covering, so it must be light enough so that the wearer isn’t too hot when praying in it.

As a kid in Virginia in the mid-1980s, I learned to weave just so I could weave my own tallit for my bat mitzvah. A boy’s bar mitzvah or girl’s bat mitzvah happens at age twelve or thirteen, usually at a religious service at a synagogue or temple. It’s a special moment in which a Jewish child becomes counted as a full member of a congregation, assuming the ritual responsibilities of adulthood.

Ed. note: There are efforts to make the b-mitzvah more gender inclusive.

When I began weaving my tallit, I was already a handspinner and had sewing skills. However, I was isolated and didn’t know anyone else who was interested in weaving a tallit. I was also the first girl to wear a tallit, traditionally worn only by men, at the congregation where I grew up.

It became a family project. My mom found information in a DIY book called The First Jewish Catalog, edited by Richard Siegel and Michael Strassfeld. Following the references, she mailed away for instructions from New York City. A non-Jewish weaving teacher helped us. My dad drove me to her basement studio, and he and I took lessons on the floor looms there. My grandmother embroidered the prayer on the atarah (neck piece), and my mom sewed the pieces together. I tied the tzitzit, creating a series of specific knots on fringes at the four corners of the rectangular tallit, which represent the 613 commandments in the Torah.

 

Image description: An adult woman adjusts the neck of a tallit on a young teenage girl.

The author wearing her handwoven tallit at her bat mitzvah.
Photo courtesy of the Seiff family.

Image description: Black and white photo of a man sitting at a floor loom, looking down at his hands.

The author’s father, Hank Seiff, weaving a tallit for her youngest brother in 1991.
Photo courtesy of the Seiff family.

In Winnipeg two decades later, wearing my handwoven tallit, as usual, to Saturday morning services, I felt deeply moved by what I saw around me. I wasn’t alone… and many others here had worked hard to make special handwoven, custom tallitot. I had to learn more.

According to a 2001 article on the Manitoba Weavers and Fiber Artists’ (MWFA) website, called “Weaving the Tallitot,” this community project began in the mid-1980s, when the Congregation Shaarey Zedek Sisterhood group bought six table looms. This was just a little while before I began my own weaving adventures!

The families who started the program had much the same feelings about building family connection and community through their work as I had when I made my tallit. Over the years, many grandparents and parents have created custom tallitot as a way of commemorating their child’s upcoming rite of passage, as well as creating meaningful ritual gifts for spouses and other family members.

Today, classes are held intermittently (they were suspended recently due to the pandemic), often in the fall and spring, at two congregations in Winnipeg: Shaarey Zedek and Etz Chayim. These classes have been taught, through the years, by absolutely dedicated non-Jewish weaving teachers, such as Brigitte Weber, who taught the Shaarey Zedek class for many years, and Dorothy de Bruijn who teaches at Etz Chayim. Dorothy also helps her friend Harriet Lyons, the long-time coordinator at Shaarey Zedek. Harriet began to weave to create her daughter’s tallit in the mid-1980s, and she’s been supporting this program ever since. Many other volunteers have helped along the way. It takes many guiding hands to help multiple novice weavers create their first weaving project.

While I wove my tallit on a floor loom, the Winnipeg practice is to use a four shaft or rigid heddle table loom, 24 to 28 inches wide. At one congregation, the students bring the looms home and back to their lessons, while at the other, they weave only during class time. Since hundreds of Jewish Winnipeggers have learned to weave over the years—for husbands, wives, a child becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, or for themselves—the process has become standardized. Teachers create the warp chains, or help the students to do so. They warp the looms at 10 to 12 ends per inch (epi). Usually the warp is long enough for weaving a bag for the tallit, the prayer shawl itself, the neck piece (atarah), and fabric to sew into a kippah (a yarmulke or skull cap). The traditional colours are white, blue, and black, although this is a personal choice. I’ve seen every colour imaginable while admiring others’ handwovens during services!

Image description: White yarn warped onto a rigid heddle loom and tied onto the front bar.

A rigid heddle loom warped for a tallit.
Photo credit Dorothy de Bruijn.

Image description: Two yarmulkes on top of and beside a woven tallit in shades of cream and brown.

Two yarmulkes on a woven tallit; the atarah is visible at the top and one set of tzitzit at the bottom-right. Photo credit Dorothy de Bruijn.

This community-wide labour of love isn’t limited to just the tallit classes. MWFA also offers general beginning weaving classes. After taking MWFA’s beginner class, a friend recently wove a tallit for his son’s bar mitzvah on a floor loom on his own. He also planned to weave more for several relatives, including two younger daughters.


Others choose to commission one of the talented teachers to weave one for them. There are also local artists painting silk and and making silkscreened tallitot, too. The opportunity to create an important ritual garment, which will hopefully see life-long use, isn’t limited to weaving.

Experiencing this holy, handwoven connection made me feel at home among makers in a new place. Seeing that many others also chose to craft something unique for a loved one spoke to me as I settled into life in Winnipeg. Things came full circle when I spoke with Harriet Lyons to learn more about this community project and her long-term work helping others to weave tallitot here. Though there were no classes held during the pandemic, Harriet invited me to volunteer one day to help new weavers when the classes start again. I made my tallit over thirty-five years ago; my skills are rusty, but this invitation spoke to me just as all those visibly handwoven creations did, across strangers’ backs in a new place. Harriet welcomed me into a creative community and home.

It’s traditional to give a tallit to a child becoming a bar or bat mitzvah or to a groom on his wedding day. Weaving my tallit has been a lifelong gift that my family helped me make for myself; in Winnipeg, it’s a gift that continues being given to new weavers, year after year. The gift of a tallit helps the wearer fulfill Jewish commandments in prayer. It connects loved ones through a meaningful spiritual gift. Weaving it myself gave me new skills, a deeper connection to my family’s “makers” and the usual gift of a tallit for my bat mitzvah.

Dorothy de Bruijn, who has taught weaving tallitot for the last ten years, describes the experience as meaningful, both in weaving commissioned prayer shawls and as a coach to novice weavers. She finds it deeply satisfying to encourage them, saying, “You can do it.” As the Jewish community weaves new tallitot for those to come, it creates a beautiful, powerful textile connection across generations and across the wider Winnipeg weaving community.

Featured image credit Dorothy de Bruijn.

Copyright © Joanne Seiff except as indicated.
Image description: Close-up photo of a smiling white woman with greying dark hair.

About Joanne Seiff

Joanne Seiff’s the author of Three Ply, Fiber Gathering and Knit Green. She writes, edits, spins, knits, designs and teaches in Winnipeg. Joanne lives in an old house with her absentminded professor husband, twins, and a bird dog. You can see her knitting designs on Payhip, Ravelry and Lovecrafts.com. Read her blog, https://joanneseiff.blogspot.com or @yrnspinner on Instagram to learn more!

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