That was the question I faced when designing an al natilat hand towel for the Sew Jewish book. This is a towel for the ritual hand washing before eating bread, most notably before a holiday meal like the Passover Seder. I wanted to give the towel a calm, uncomplicated sensibility to complement the relaxed mood of a Shabbat meal. So I wanted to avoid extra decorations, like Hebrew letters and Jewish symbols.
The Hebrew phrase “mayyim hayyim,” which means “living waters,” kept coming to mind. It’s a phrase associated with Miriam’s Well, the water source that God gave to the Israelites while they were traveling in the desert. Maybe your Passover Seder incorporates the modern ritual of a Miriam’s Cup of water to accompany Elijah’s Cup of wine. The phrase is also associated with spiritual renewal.
The theme of mayyim hayyim eventually led me to the idea of creating the towel with wave tucks. Wave tucks are like the tucks you see running down a tuxedo shirt, but by sewing the tucks down in alternating directions you create waves. Perfect for conveying a sense of moving water.
I also love that the waves in the towel aren’t just visual, they’re also textural–you feel them–which seems fitting for a practice that focuses on the hands.
So this towel embodies part of my answer to what can make a sewing project Jewish, even without Jewish symbols: Its form communicates a Jewish concept, in this case “mayyim hayyim,” living waters.
[Image: Al natilat towel from the Sew Jewish book.]