On my birthday in 2015, an acquaintance posted online that she was ready to part with her barely used 10-inch Schacht Cricket rigid heddle loom. Birthday present for me! I picked it up from her later that same day, at the beach no less. It was perfect.
Armed with encouragement from my friend and colleague Liz Gipson and her book, Weaving Made Easy, I set about learning how to use the thing, having never woven anything in my life. I grabbed some scrap yarn, clamped the loom to my dining room table, cracked the spine of my book to the instructions on warping, and proceeded with the help of my then-four-year-old.
Read on for why it took six years for me to truly fall in love with weaving, and to see the items I’ve been making lately as I prepare for a major heirloom project.
It was a silly mistake, using scrap yarn. I did not love the colours of the yarn I chose. So while I enjoyed the mental exercise of learning how to warp my new rigid heddle loom, doing the actual weaving was an effort of endurance rather than pleasure.
And while I do still have the too-short scarf I wove as that first project, I can’t find it at the moment and don’t have a photo. If ever there were indication of a lack of enthusiasm, that’s it right there. I did start another project on the loom, but I lost steam, and the loom sat on a shelf in a closet, with that unfinished weaving on it, for years.
Then, a few months ago, writer Joanne Seiff and I started chatting about an idea that would end up becoming her piece on a forty-years-running community program in Winnipeg matching weaving teachers from the local guild with synagogue members who want to learn to weave a tallit for their children’s b’nai mitzvah. A tallit is a very particular kind of shawl worn in prayer, and it’s traditional for a child to receive their first one on the occasion of this rite of passage between childhood and their assumption of more adult responsibilities as a Jew.
As it happened, my son was recently assigned a date for his bar mitzvah, late in 2023 (such dates are set years before the event, because part of what the child will prepare for is determined by the date).
A switch flipped in my head and several undeniable truths became apparent. The first is that, obviously, I would weave my kid’s tallit. Because I could, and because I knew I would love the learning that would get me there. It certainly helped to know I’d have nearly three years to get it done.
The second was an understanding of why my wee loom had been on a closet shelf for years. It’s because I do not enjoy making scarves. I don’t knit or crochet scarves, either. I very rarely wear scarves. A tiny loom is an amazing thing, but this one was too small to enable me to make the kinds of projects I would really enjoy.
Armed with my newfound determination to weave my kid a tallit, I bought a new loom—a 32-inch Ashford Rigid Heddle Loom (which I unboxed here). At this width, I’d have flexibility in the size of tallit I’d end up making, and I’d also be able to use two heddles to weave double-width projects, which means I could weave an entire blanket in one go.
Since I got my new loom, I’ve embarked on a series of experiments designed to lead me to a desired width for my son’s tallit, to a desired blend of fibres so it won’t be to warm to wear, and to a desired fabric weight and drape. I’ve learned a ton and have barely scratched the surface.
I’ve learned that though I can certainly weave kitchen towels on my new loom, I have no desire to ever do that again.
On the other hand, my experiment weaving sock yarn at 10 epi (ends per inch—like part of gauge but for weavers) was a raging success. I love the stole I made using two skeins of sock yarn plus some leftovers I had to add to the mix after I discovered I’d done my calculations all wrong (um, yes, I learned that imperial is not metric; there are twelve inches in a foot, not ten). I also learned from this experiment that sock yarn is too heavy for what I want in a tallit.
My next tallit experiment will involve using two heddles (my first time!) to double the number of ends per inch—using two 10-dent heddles to achieve 20 epi. I’ll use laceweight yarn for this experiment, and I’m confident this will be the weight I’ll stick with to prototype my first actual tallit.
That prototype tallit will be for me. I was raised in a denomination of Judaism in which, at the time, only men wore a tallit; I did not wear one at my bat mitzvah, and indeed I’ve never worn one, though I have since joined a more progressive denomination that is fully egalitarian. My personal relationship with religion is complicated, but I’ve learned that the tallit, as a ritual object, is very much up my alley. There are very few rules about how a tallit can be made or what it can look like. Despite the ubiquity of the traditional tallit woven in white with black or blue stripes, one can actually be made in any colours, and it doesn’t have to be woven at all. And though I used to think it was required that a prayer be printed or embroidered on the neck piece centred along one long edge of the tallit, this piece can actually say anything, or nothing, and indeed the neck piece is not required at all.
I didn’t anticipate wanting a tallit for myself, but now I can’t wait to wear one that is exactly what I want. Weaving is the most ancient of yarn crafts, and while I may not find my spiritual grounding in prayer, I sure do find it in my connection to a craft that has been practiced for millenia.
My tallit will no doubt be deeply flawed. Any first attempt at making a new thing is bound to be. I will embrace whatever imperfection I weave into it, though, and I will wear those mistakes with comfort and pride; they will remind me of the many hands that came before mine, of all that remains before me to learn. And from what I’ll have learned making it, I’ll turn to making one for my kid.
Thank goodness I started with three years to work with! Stay tuned for more on my experimentation and progress, which I’ll also occasionally post about on Instagram.