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The Expert

Jewish Prayer Shawl Weaver

Alissa Stern, 41, Bethesda, www.jewishweaving.com

Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page M03

SPINNING 101: After I graduated from Cornell, I met this older woman while out dancing. It was my first time and she -- a regular -- took pity on me. I found out she knew the age-old practice of weaving. I was fascinated and wanted to learn. In the evenings, I would bike to her house where she would give me pointers and fix my mistakes. A friend built a loom for me so I could weave in my spare time. I went to Harvard Law School and started my own nonprofit. Then in 1995, I wove a tallit, which is a Jewish prayer shawl, and started wondering: What would it be like to spend more time weaving?

TLC: A tallit can cost from $350 to about $1,000, depending on fiber and size. Most people fold them and store them in bags, which tends to make a permanent crease and can break fragile threads, especially metallic ones. The better way is to roll them -- even if they are used weekly. Rolling helps them keep their shape so they can be passed on to other generations.


Got a passion for cats or feel patriotic? Alissa Stern can make a tallit for you. (Pilar Vergara For The Washington Post)

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A LOOM WITH A VIEW: A person usually orders only one tallit in his or her life. Most are white with blue or black stripes, but I'm often asked to weave much more personal shawls. I've woven one with an array of cats, a post-9/11 patriotic tallit and one that resembled Charlton Heston's prayer shawl in "The Ten Commandments."

OLD SCHOOL: I weave my tallit pretty much the same way that weavers have been weaving since the Middle Ages -- using natural fibers on a handloom, following Kosher rules of not mixing linen and wool, and using specially spun yarn for the intricately knotted corner fringes. I mainly buy my silk from www.treenwaysilks.com and my cotton, linen and chenille from www.yarn.com. Once it arrives, it takes me four to 10 hours to set up the loom and another five to 15 hours to weave.

DREAM WEAVER: One time a customer asked me to weave two Hebrew letters on an atarah, or neckband. When I asked him which letters to use, he said that they would come to me in a dream -- and they did. I wanted to embroider a "shin" and a "lamed," but I ended up making an "aleph" and a "shin." In Hebrew, each letter has mystical significance. I asked the client what my unintended letter changes meant, but he never told me. He said one day I would understand -- no luck yet. As told to Karen Hart

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