You’re thinking about making a tallit –prayer shawl– and wondering what fabric to use. Wool and silk seem popular, and many modern commercial tallits are made from polyester blends. Are these the only acceptable options? Are some fabrics better than others? Are there some fabrics you can’t use? Here are some considerations based on Biblical law, rabbinic law, custom, and practical considerations.
A Biblical commandment (Deuteronomy 22:11) prohibits combining linen and wool in the same garment –the combination is called shatnez. Almost all commercially available tzitzit strings are made from wool, so avoid making the body of the tallit with any materials that contain linen.
If you want to adhere to the strictest interpretations of Jewish teachings, choose wool.
In the Torah, one of the two commandments about affixing tzitzit strings appears right after the verse about not mixing linen and wool in the same garment (Deuteronomy 22:11,12), so under the strictest interpretations of Jewish law, the only garments that require tzitzit are those that are made from wool or linen. And therefore, again under the strictest interpretations of Jewish law, the only tallit fabrics that can be used to fulfill the commandment of tying tzitzit would be wool and linen. But since linen is out because of the shatnez issue related to using wool tzitzit strings, wool becomes the only remaining choice for the body of the tallit.
It’s worth noting that early rabbinic authorities ruled that the commandment to affix tzitzit applies to garments made from any type of fabric. However, under the strictest interpretations of Jewish teachings, while tying tzitzit to a garment made from anything other than wool or linen would satisfy rabbinic law, only tying them to a wool or linen garment would satisfy Biblical law (and again, because of the wool tzitzit issue, linen tallits are out).
In addition, a widely-observed opinion (Shulchan Aruch: Code of Jewish Law, Siman 9:12) holds that the tallit and tzitzit should be made from the same type of material. So with the availability of tzitzit strings virtually limited to wool, wool becomes the default material for the body of the garment.
For all these reasons, even many people who don’t consider wool to be the only acceptable fabric still consider wool, or fabrics made with a majority of wool fibers, to be the ideal choice.
If your community’s custom isn’t limited to wool, you have a lot more choices.
In many communities, of course, customary practices don’t limit you to wool, and so, with consideration for your community’s customs and the opinion of your rabbi or designated halakhic advisor, a wider world of choices opens up. Several considerations lend themselves to choosing a fabric other than wool: availability, affordability, or a creative vision that cannot be denied.
As you think about your choices, here are some thoughts on several types of fabrics:
Silk: Silk is a widely popular alternative to wool. Its status as a special occasion fabric fits the purpose of a prayer shawl. Silk tallits are discussed at length in the Shulchan Aruch, suggesting that they’ve enjoyed popularity at some times and places in Jewish history. Among the many varieties that would work well for a tallit are China silk, raw silk, and silk Dupioni. For an example of a prayer shawl made from silk Dupioni, take a look at this version created by reader Susan Yaskin.
Polyester/Acrylic and Polyester/Acrylic/Wool Blends: Many contemporary commercial tallits –and by my reckoning most of the tallits available to borrow at synagogues– are blends of wool and polyester. Man-made fibers have the advantage of generally being less expensive than natural fibers, and they can add durability and drape. Wool-poly blends are often easier to find than fabrics that are 100% wool.
Cotton: Raw cotton is gaining popularity for commercially-made tallits. A reference that I wish I could have put my hands on in time for publishing this post notes that some prominent early rabbinic authorities were known to use cotton for their tallit katan, the small tallit that fits over the head and is worn throughout the day. If you choose cotton for your tallit, look for a version that has substantial weight and good drape so that it doesn’t look too casual.
Organza: Very lightweight and transparent, you’ll find varieties made from silk and manmade fibers. You’ll also find a wide variety of embroidered organzas.
Denim: Denin, generally a cotton or cotton/poly blend, is a modern, informal option. And it comes in white. Choose something that drapes well, and avoid denims that stretch. If you’re considering denim, take a look at this denim tallit denim tallit made by reader Darlene Gordon.
Hemp: Hemp is a contemporary choice worth considering, especially for reasons of good environmental stewardship.
Ideally, choose thread that doesn’t contain the same material as the tallit fabric.
The topic of thread deserves its own blog post for a full explanation, but since some readers might be looking at this post while making a shopping list for a trip to the fabric store, it’s worth a quick mention here. According to the strictest interpretation of Jewish law, the thread should be of a different fiber than the fabric. So ideally, under this strict interpretation, if you are making a silk tallit, choose a non-silk thread like polyester. If you’re making a tallit from cotton, avoid cotton thread and instead choose polyester or silk.
Whatever fabric you choose, remember that fabric choice and construction techniques go hand in hand.
As you consider your fabric choices, be sure you’re thinking about how you’ll construct the tallit. Lighter fabrics can be hemmed, for example, but heavier fabrics may need to be finished with zigzag stitches or a serger. And if you’d like to create the traditional fringe on the ends of the tallit using the threads from the fabric, choose a material with coarse threads that will be easy to separate and knot. For an example, take a look at the tallit on the cover of the Sew Jewish book.
Whatever fiber you choose –wool, silk, poly– look for a fabric that is woven and drapes well.
What fabric will you use to make your tallit?
For more information about the Jewish laws and practices behind the structure and construction of the tallit, I recommend the modern classic book on the subject, Tzitzith: A Thread Of Light, by Aryeh Kaplan (affiliate link).
[Updated on 9/7/2017 to include the information about choosing thread.]