March 10, 2005
New Tallit Bag Trend Threads Family Ties
Every Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., a group of eight mothers and grandmothers meets at Lani's Needlepoint in Studio City. There, under Lani Silver's expert guidance -- one diagonal, tied-down or decorative stitch at a time --they have cumulatively needlepointed more than 20 tallit bags.
"It's really the big bar mitzvah gift now," said Silver, who sells more than 100 tallit bag canvases a year, half of them her own designs.
"Making the tallit bag for [my daughter] Jackie was a pleasurable part of the whole bat mitzvah process. Every stitch has love in it," said Wendy Farkas, a class member who has completed two tallit bags.
"I feel my children's presence when I'm needlepointing," added Susie Friedman, a member working on her third tallit bag. "This is something of me that they'll always have."
The needlepoint tallit bag boom is fairly recent. Abe Halper, who, with his wife, manufactures and distributes the Exclusively Arleen line out of New York, has been in the needlepoint business since 1974.
"When I started, there were only two 'cheapie' silk-screened designs -- a Torah and a Jewish star," said Halper, who now carries 40 to 50 tallit bag designs, with intricate or abstract Jewish symbols and motifs, all hand-painted on top-quality canvas.
Nettie Wasserman, who remembers those original silk-screens, opened her first shop, Nettie's Needlepoint, in 1968 near Century City.
"I didn't even know how to needlepoint," she admitted.
Now, out of her Beverly Hills store, she carries dozens of tallit bag designs, selling up to three a week and providing private lessons in primarily the continental stitch (a basic diagonal), using a variety of yarns.
Needlepoint tallit bags are also the top seller for Judy Rosenbaum Rieder, who in 1980 founded California Stitchery, predominantly a needlecraft mail-order business. She carries more than two dozen tallit bag designs, selling hundreds a year, primarily packaged as kits with perle cotton yarn and directions for the continental stitch.
Rieder, who has stitched three- or four -dozen tallit bags herself, said, "It's really wonderful to leave children something that nobody else can do."
Even Theresa Lee, who is Chinese and who founded Lee's Needle Art in 1976, started manufacturing and selling tallit bags about 20 years ago, a result of customer demand. She's become very knowledgeable about Judaism, which she attributes to an extensive collection of Jewish books and "living in Cherry Hill, N.J., near six synagogues."
Silver, who opened her first store in 1978 in Sherman Oaks, saw an interest in tallit bags surge in the 1980s.
"My Jewish students saw the ... women making needlepoint Christmas stockings as heirlooms," she said. "They wanted to do something meaningful and religious that could be passed down through the generations."
This conveniently coincided with the introduction of more glittery and decorative needlepoint yarns, as well as new, thin knitting yarns. People still primarily did the continental stitch, but they were able to create different textures.
In the 1990s, more intricate stitches (such as straight, boxed, crossed, tied and open) became popular. All of which can be found in the industry bible,"The Needlepoint Book: A Complete Update of the Classic Guide," by Jo Ippolito Christensen (Fireside, 1999).
In the last five years, even fancier yarns, including wool and silk blends, variegated cottons, overdyed silks and silk ribbon, have become available, which, in combination with metallics and more complex stitches, allow women to make something that's not only practical and meaningful but actually a work of art.
Most bags range from $85 to $125 for the blank, hand-painted canvas, plus there is yarn, bag finishing, which can run $125, and, for many people, classes. Many women also make matching atarot (the neckbands that adorn the tallitot) and kippot, which, if not available, can be custom ordered. They also often have the child's name added in English or Hebrew.
Rieder recommended that women give themselves a year to needlepoint a tallit bag. Silver suggested about three months, working an hour or two a night.
The process can actually be therapeutic.
"Needlepointing, like any repetitive motion, creates serotonin," Silver said. "It gives you a feeling of peacefulness at a time when you're freaking out."
And the classes become a support group.
"Sitting in class reminds me of an old-fashioned quilting bee," Friedman said. "We share anecdotes and resources."
Christine Sufrin, a class member who has completed four bags, said, "As a convert, being in a class where everyone is Jewish helps me learn. And the standing joke at home, whenever there's a family question, is, 'What does the needlepoint group say?'"
But more than anything else, needlepointing a tallit bag is about creating a memorable heirloom.
"I wish I had something handmade from my mother to help me conjure up her presence," Friedman said.
Jane Ulman is a freelance writer who lives in Encino