Design a tallit as unique as they are

Prayer shawls, or tallitot, have long been an important part of Jewish ritual tradition.
May 14, 2015

Prayer shawls, or tallitot, have long been an important part of Jewish ritual tradition. Although the date of their first appearance is unknown, Torah dictates that we wear fringes (tzitzit) on the four corners of a garment (Numbers 15:37-41) to remind us of God’s commandments. Traditionally, tallitot were worn only by men and there was not much variation in design and color — they were white or off-white, with black or blue stripes. 

Since the 1970s, however, many women in non-Orthodox communities have been choosing to wear tallitot, and liberal shuls that had for many years shunned the practice for men now embrace it. As the donning of tallitot has become more widespread, the variety also has increased: Tallitot are available in a wide array of colors and designs, incorporating everything from historic themes to pop culture. Today, a quick Internet search yields thousands of purveyors of handmade and custom prayer shawls. 

Cathy Perlmutter, 58, has been quilting for 22 years and making tallitot, along with other Judaica items, for 15 years.

“I came to [tallitot] through quilting,” said the Pasadena resident, who works from her home sewing room. “I learned sewing in home economics in middle school, [but] I didn’t do it for years. I learned about quilting and got addicted. Then, I discovered [fabric with images of matzah on it]. … I started getting very interested in making Judaica.” 

The inspiration for creating tallitot came when she ran across a fabric she loved.

“I went into this fabric store and saw this beautiful striped fabric … and I thought, ‘This is a tallis.’ So, I made a tallis for myself.” Later, when it came time for her son’s bar mitzvah, she decided to make one for him.

“My son was very interested in science and space,” Perlmutter said. “He wanted the Hubble Space Telescope photo, so I put Hubble photos on it. I did a piecing of a cosmos and a quote from his Torah portion.”

Charles Harris surprised his son, Jason, who had his bar mitzvah at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino last August, with a custom rock ‘n’ roll tallit. After looking around and not finding what he wanted, Harris searched online for custom tallitot and came across Perlmutter’s website (judaiquilt.com).

“I knew I wanted something that was unique and was a reflection of Jason and his interests,” the Tarzana resident said. “He is a talented musician, and he’s really into rock ‘n’ roll. We both share a love of the Beatles and the Who and the Rolling Stones. He’s infatuated with guitars. I wanted something that reflects his favorite things.”

Unable to find a suitable music-themed tallit, Harris decided to look into having one made. “I emailed Cathy and told her what I was thinking. 

“What we ended up creating is unique,” Harris said. “It’s absolutely one of a kind and it’s personal. It reflects my son and what he’s all about. And I hope it’s something he’ll have for his entire life and pass on to his own kids one day,” said Harris, who still has his own tallit from his bar mitzvah.

“It’s absolutely one of a kind … And I hope it’s something he’ll have for his entire life and pass on to his own kids one day.” — Charles Harris, father

Perlmutter said it takes her anywhere from a few days to more than a month to create a tallit. Every step of the process is customized according to what the person wants, from the length and width of the tallit to the type of fabric, designs and colors. She also makes matching bags for each tallit and considers them an extension of her artwork. Prices for her custom tallitot start at $400.

“I draw mock-ups and I draw sketches, which I send back and forth in emails,” Perlmutter said. “I want to get as much input as I can. I want them to be happy.

“It’s a tremendous privilege and a mitzvah,” she said about designing custom tallitot. “A bar or bat mitzvah is a huge, meaningful event in a family’s life. It’s so fun to get a sense of who the kid is, who the parents are, how he or she relates to their Jewish heritage, what they’re thinking about at 13. It’s just a super amount of fun.”

Linda Rourman, 66, made her first tallit 20 years ago. Three years later, she went into business after people at her temple, the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center (PJTC), saw her wearing her creation. 

The inspiration for her personal designs comes from the Torah and, for custom tallitot, from whatever customers want. 

“One of the first samples I made was made out of a cocoa-colored, silk burlap. [For] the atarah [a decorative neckband sewn along the top of the tallit], I made a long, burning bush and at the end of it in small letters to the right said, ‘Hineni,’ which Moses said when God called to him.

“Another one of the samples I made I called ‘B’reishit,’ because I made it a patchwork of when God created the heavens and the stars, the sea and the dry land.” 

Custom designs are carefully planned out, with Rourman drawing pictures of the ideas people give her. All of the embroidery, including names and dates as well as most of the photos, is done by hand, except for machine applique. Rourman’s matching tallit bags are lined and have a zipper closure.

Aside from designing new tallitot, Rourman also restores and repairs old tallitot, and she can incorporate family heirlooms into a new tallit. One of her first “historical” tallitot took seven months to complete, though she asks for six weeks’ notice for most orders.

Prices begin at $150 for cotton and $185 for silk, with total price averaging from $250 to $550 based on complexity of the piece. 

Smadar Knobler, who is in her mid-’60s, was born in Israel and moved to California with her family as a teenager. She has been creating tallitot for 30 years, starting with the one she made for her daughter’s bat mitzvah.

“I wove it on a loom,” Knobler said. “After that, my tallitot were painted.

“Weaving is a lot simpler. The nature of the weave has beautiful patterns. But you cannot get as elaborate as you can with painting,” she added.

After taking a workshop for silk painting, Knobler said, she was hooked. 

“I bought my first little kit and went home and painted and painted on silk.”

She paints on a variety of silk fabrics, using textile or silk paints. She also teaches silk painting from her workshop in Calabasas.

For people who want a hands-on experience creating their tallitot, Knobler said, “People order and design [the tallit] with me. Sometimes, if they really like to paint, they can paint with me. … It’s a long process. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s something I like to share with people.

“We start with their ideas of what they’d like to see on a tallit,” she said. “[It can be] something special from their lives, something unique that they wouldn’t see anywhere else, and they show me either pictures or I draw for them what I think that they mean by a custom tallit. I show them different kinds of fabrics and different fringes that they can use.” 

For those unsure about what they want, Knobler shows them photos of her previous work, which includes traditional designs such as the Tree of Life and depictions of Jerusalem or Noah’s Ark, as well as more modern designs such as a rainforest or trumpets and saxophones. Some of these designs also can be seen on her website (smadarsdesigns.com). 

Knobler makes matching tallit bags and also can paint a matching design on a silk kippah. Her prices range from $400 to $600 and the process takes about four to six weeks. And when the time comes for the tzitzit, the family can experience tying them together.

“People feel really good in having a say about what they’re going to be wearing and enjoying,” Knobler said.

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