Shirley Waxman’s work is so recognizable at Washington-area synagogues that if a boy leaves his tallit behind, a synagogue will call the fiber artist to collect the prayer shawl and return it to the boy.
Waxman, 86, has been making colorful, patterned, hand-embroidered tallitot since the 1990s. She also makes kippot, chuppot, wall hangings and Torah coverings. But it is her one-of-a-kind prayer shawls that have made her a local treasure.
“People come to me because they want the unique, and I’m certainly willing to work with the folklore and things that are important to them,” the Potomac resident says.
Waxman studied folklore in Israel and visited many of the countries from which she sources her materials. Her basement is her workspace, with spools of thread hanging from the wall, drawers full of buttons, two large work tables and numerous tallitot on racks and hooks.
Meander into her back room, and you’ll find a colorful display of fabrics from Thailand, Ghana, China, Japan, Israel, Burma and plenty of other countries. Huge rolls of silk hang from the walls, and a collection of dyes sits on a shelf. Waxman can name the place and tell the story behind each piece of cloth.
“This is a very interesting silk,” she says, pointing to a brown, textured fabric that looks like a cocoon. “I bought this in India, and it’s the wild silkworm.”
Most tallitot have a straight, rectangular shape. Early on, Waxman decided she didn’t like that shape at all:
“It’s an illogical design,” she says. “To start with, you have a neck, and a neck is a curve. You ask a straight line to sit on a curve, it bunches up. Your shoulders aren’t boards and [people] flip [that tallit] over their shoulders. What does it do? It falls off.”
She says when she started making tallitot, she came up with a curved design based on biblical tallitot.
She can make a tallit in two days, but the embroidery takes about two weeks. Then Waxman has to piece everything together, including the tzitzit and atarah, the band around the collar, which is the last piece to be attached. Some atarot have quotations on them, chosen by the tallit’s eventual owner.
Others have unique designs. Pointing to an atarah embroidered with connecting purple circles, Waxman explains that she learned this embroidery from Yemenite women in Israel. She loves doing this style, though it takes a while.
“Every stitch means something. They were very spiritual people and they never put a needle into cloth without some beautiful thought. And the connecting circles come from the l’dor v’dor — from generation to generation,” Waxman says. “The chain is one of our most ancient symbols. Because if a link of a chain breaks, you’ve lost tradition.”
It seems like Waxman has thought of everything. To carry the tallitot, she makes indestructible bags which have a pocket and a button snap inside. She measures bar mitzvah boys’ fathers and guesses the boys’ future heights, so their tallitot will fit them far beyond the next growth spurt.
Each of her customers conferences with her to design his or her own tallit.
“I feel like the tallit is a piece of myself going out,” she says. “And it has to be appropriate. I love what I’m doing, and I have to enjoy the piece I’m working on. And it’s rare that it isn’t suitable.”
Waxman wears her own tallit every week when she attends services at Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville. Its multicolor chevron and rectangular pattern are based on a Frank Lloyd Wright design, and the atarah uses the Yemenite embroidery Waxman is so fond of.
She loves purple, uses it about twice as much as any other color in her work. But her tallit also has some black, which she used to hate and now thinks is beautiful. She wears her tallit bright with orange, yellow, purple and black — and she doesn’t plan to stop creating her art anytime soon.