Shirley Waxman, of Montgomery County, makes "wearable art." Her tallitot are made of silk dyed a variety of hues. Almost all her tallitot are striped; the stripes are made of pieced silk. Waxman frequently uses Yemenite embroidery for the atarah or on the body of the tallit. Used on the atarah it replaces the traditional words; Waxman likes to use Yemenite embroidery because, as with letters, the patterns are constructed to convey specific meanings. She frequently uses the embroidery to create patterns that are abstract and colorful, and look a great deal like conventional modern art.
Waxman began making tallitot about fifteen years ago. Her first commission was for a man who wanted something comfortable and colorful. A few years later Waxman made the tallit for the first girl in her synagogue - the Conservative congregation of Beth Tikvah - to wear one. Now approximately one quarter of her clients come from Beth Tikvah, and she has made tallitot for members of all three Conservative congregations within Washington, DC. Waxman has seen constant growth in her business: in 1981 she received three commissions; in 1996 she made approximately 60 tallitot. Over these same years all craft Judaica has seen a rise in popularity. Although initially Waxman received commissions from more men than women, she found that most women were more comfortable going to her for a tallit than they were buying one in a Judaica shop.
Roz Houseknecht is a weaver. Like Waxman she incorporates stripes into her designs: some are traditionally horizontal, while others are vertical. Some of her tallitot use both, creating a plaid design. A very few of her tallitot include lace-pattern stripes; these were commissioned by women who were concerned about their tallitot matching their outfits, and liked the idea of their clothes showing through the lace. According to Houseknecht, many women are concerned that their tallitot match their outfits.
Houseknecht made her first tallit twenty-two years ago. She wove the first few for male relatives. Houseknecht's first paying customers were women becoming bat mitzvah,* who wanted feminine tallitot. Now, however, she receives more commissions for men than for women.
Reeva Shaffer is a calligrapher who paints atarot by hand. Her tallitot are made of hand-woven silk, with stripes of colored silk pieced on. Shaffer also uses ribbons and trims as decorations. Some of her tallitot are a traditional rectangular shape; others are quite narrow. Although Shaffer has found no differences in the patterns men and women choose she has noticed that women are more likely to choose pastel colors than men.
Shaffer has been making tallitot since 1989. From the start, she received commissions from both men and women. She sells her tallitot all over the country, through conferences and art festivals. She herself began wearing a tallit only after she gave a recent sermon during which she felt it was appropriate to wear one.
Both Waxman and Houseknecht ask their customers to tie the tzitzit themselves. Houseknecht asks the entire family to take part when the tallit is for a bar or bat mitzvah, and each member ties a corner. Waxman says that people are sometimes nervous, as the specifications for tying tzitzit are exact. She takes pictures of the customers tying their tzitzit. This ritual makes the tallit more personal, and the acquisition of a tallit more of an event.