About

Machine applique sewing tutorial video
Maria Bywater

Hi! Welcome to Sew Jewish. I’m Maria. I design wedding chuppahs for Huppahs.com, and I launched Sew Jewish to show you how to sew your own Judaica and Jewish-themed projects. I also want to explore the role of sewing and needle crafts in Jewish culture and Jewish history as well as share things I find inspiring, although nothing inspires me more than hearing from you.

My name tends to give away the fact that I wasn’t born Jewish. I was born Catholic, then converted to Judaism when I was 25 and spent most of the next ten years living in predominantly Muslim countries in North Africa and the Persian Gulf. I’ve had the pleasure of living in and visiting Jewish communities in these regions and in England. During four years in the Persian Gulf, I even got to know a lot of American Jews I wouldn’t have otherwise met, since my family regularly hosted U.S. military personnel for Jewish holidays in our home.

During my first year living overseas, in Tunisia, I volunteered for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and became inspired by the traditions that exist in Tunisia’s small, isolated Jewish communities. I started a website to collect and share information about the customs of small Jewish communities around the world and the changing customs of Jewish communities through history. Craft projects on the site explored Jewish customs. I became especially drawn to the role of needle crafts in Jewish life.

Pomegranate appliqueNow I’m back home in New York’s beautiful Hudson Valley. But when I sew, my mind often wanders to images of Jews through history doing similar work — a new mother living in Germany in the sixteenth century sewing a Torah scroll wrap to celebrate the birth of her son; a tailor in Instanbul; a school girl in Damascus in 1890 learning to make lace; a nineteenth century Moroccan Jew embroidering a tallit bag with threads of metallic gold – and I feel I’m part of a living tradition that stretches back centuries.

sew hexagon tallis holeMy design philosophy is to use simple techniques and quality materials and to craft items that will last a long time. In large measure, I want things to last because I see sewing as an important part of building a sustainable future for my family and my community. But also, when I invest time in a project, I want the result to be something that I’ll enjoy having in my life and something that I won’t have to replace anytime soon. And when I develop a project to share at Sew Jewish, I assume you feel the same way. It’s important to me to help you create something you love and something you can use in your life for a long time and maybe even pass on to the next generation.

I came to my philosophy of simple, quality construction in high school when I got a part-time job selling shoes and had to dress professionally while earning only minimum wage. My solution was to sew a bunch of pencil skirts (and a couple of ties that I thought looked pretty cute) as the foundation for my wardrobe. The skirts were very simple, but they worked because the fabrics were of good quality. I had to dip into my earnings for that fabric, but I was not going to spend money on a pattern. So that skirt became my first foray into design.

I created my first piece of Judaica in college to impress a guy. And it worked. It was a Passover matzah cover embroidered with sheaves of wheat, grapes, apples and the words of a blessing, all worked into the shape of a Star of David. I probably spent as much time researching Passover traditions, symbols, colors, and embroidery stitches as I did actually embroidering the design.

wool and linenEven now, when I approach a new design for Judaica or a Jewish-themed item, I like to research the object or tradition it’s used for and start conceptualizing from there. I’m definitely a first principles kind of girl, which I suppose is a big part of what led me to Judaism in the first place. What’s it all about? What’s the essence of the thing? When approaching a project I’ve never encountered before, I want to know how its use is rooted in the Torah. Do the legal explanations in the Talmud or the Shulhan Aruch provide details? Are there folk stories from the Midrash or mystical concepts in Kaballah that will provide deeper levels of meaning? I want to know what historians and commentators have said about how people lived or how they used the object I’m researching. I’m always on the lookout for paintings, old etchings, and photographs that show items of Judaica and how they were used. I could get stuck in research for years. And I have. But only when I actually create something do the ideas live. Even when my designs differ from classic Judaica, I want them to hook into Jewish tradition in a meaningful way.

When the form of a ritual object is impacted by Jewish law, I strive to develop designs that comply with the law. And in the instructions for the project I explain how those laws affect the design so that you can take them into account as much or as little as you want when making the project your own.

how to tallit general without tzitzitI hope you find something at Sew Jewish you love. Keep in touch by following us on Twitter or signing up for our RSS feed or emails. And when you are inspired by something on the site, please make our day by letting us know! Add a comment or send me an email at maria{dot}bywater{at}sewjewish{dot}com.

If you haven’t looked around the site yet, here’s our most popular post, which is a good place to get started: How to Sew Your Own Tallit.

Enjoy,
Maria

8 thoughts on “About

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this! I loved learning about the things that made you who you are and that guide your thoughtful work today. The drive to create something meaningful that’s made to be used and to take on it’s own life as it witnesses and takes part in the lives around it is a refreshing counterpoint to the disposable nature of the culture to which we’re often subjected. That’s something we can all do with more of!

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  2. Thanks for all the information. I was already working on one for a friend and have ended up using your atarah pattern to help cut it out. I was wondering if you know of a source of pre knotted tziziots that I could use on the tallit

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    • Hi Marsha. I’m glad you found the atarah pattern useful.

      For the tzitzit, I’m afraid you won’t find any pre–knotted strings because the strings have to be inserted half way trough the holes in the corner of the tallit before the ends of the strings are knotted together.

      But knotting them isn’t tricky. There’s a video on the site that will walk you through it step by step (it was produced by Jewish Pathways): The Best Video Ever on How to Tie Tzitzit. I’ve put a couple of my own tips in the post that accompanies the video.

      And I guarantee you’ll feel pretty psyched after you’ve tied your first tzitzit strings. Good luck!

      – Maria

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  3. Hello, Maria! I’m the new education director at the Beacon Hebrew Alliance, and Rabbi Brent Spodek told me about your website. It’s very beautiful and accessible, and your projects are fascinating! I wanted to tell you about a huge sewing project that’s happening next week at the synagogue; we’re going to turn fifty Indian sarees into a giant Tent of Abraham. This will be next Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 12. If you are nearby and might want to drop by and have a look, we would be so very honored!

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