Stitch Your Own Beautiful Needlepoint Tallit Bag
A handmade needlepoint tallit bag is a work of art and love that can last a lifetime. Just take a look at the face of the mom or grandma who spent months stitching the perfect bag for the Bar or Bat Mitzvah as they bring it up to the bimah on that special day – talk about kvelling with pride!
Anyone can make one. All you really need is a needlepoint canvas, wool yarn and a needle. Sure, you can get fancy with metallic fibers, beads and clever stitches, but even a novice can create a beautiful memento using just a basic needlepoint stitch.
The first rule of thumb is to start early! I started both of my kids’ bags when they were 11 years old. Needlepointing a tallit canvas can take you six months to a year. Then you need to send it off to a special “finisher” who sews your handiwork into a beautiful bag with a satin lining, embroidered name and date, and a zippered closure. That can also take months, depending on the finisher. And believe me, after working on something this precious, you want the best possible finisher to transform your work into something stunning, not poorly sewn or misshapen.
Thank you to Gail, my mom, professional PR writer, Temple president and TV enthusiast for contributing this guest post to B’nai Mitzvah Academy.
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So where to begin? Find a local or online needlepoint store that has tallit bag canvases for sale. They range from plain (a navy blue square with a Star of David) to elaborate (the Jerusalem skyline with doves and a rainbow). When choosing a design, you can ask the Bar or Bat Mitzvah what they prefer, but remember that you hope this item will last a lifetime. And what an 11-year-old likes right now – such as cutesy flowers or unicorns – may not be something they want to carry to High Holy Days when they are 40 years old! So, pick wisely and with an eye to the future.
If you have a needlepoint store in your area, the best thing is to sign up for weekly classes where an instructor will tell you exactly what stitch and what fiber are best for each section of the design. Imagine an old-fashioned sewing circle where the instructor goes from student to student giving them their next stitch. Needlepoint teachers are adept at making your project the best it can be, and help troubleshoot any issues that arise. Stores typically have a trusted finisher, and will take care of all the shipping and details to make sure your project comes back beautiful and safe. Even if your budget is tight, finishing is something you should take seriously.
When my daughter was about 10, I decided to make her a bag; it was going to be my first needlepoint project ever, although I had done cross stitch for years (and was even a member of the Pomegranate Society, a national organization for Jewish stitchers.)
In Los Angeles, we are fortunate to have more than one needlepoint store. In order to choose where I wanted to enroll for classes, I visited each one during an actual class to see if I like what the stitchers were making; I figured out that the canvas design didn’t matter as much as the instructor’s skill in choosing colors and threads.
After some research, I found Aristeia Needlepoint in Los Angeles – and have been stitching there for the past 19 years. Trust me when I say this store is awesome, from the large variety of canvases to their skilled instructors and store staff, and their finishers. They even host needlepoint retreats for stitchers from across the country.
An important note is to make sure your needlepoint store is knowledgeable about choosing the right threads specifically for a tallit bag. Since they are carried under your arm, perhaps rubbing against a suit jacket or a purse, the fibers need to be durable. It’s not a pillow or a picture in a frame. Wool yarn is a popular choice.
If you can’t find a store in your neighborhood, or you don’t have time or cash for classes, you can still create a stunning bag on your own. Almost every needlepoint shop will create a stitch guide for you – a detailed booklet with every stitch illustrated and every thread selected – and will mail you the entire package wherever you live. Of course, you pay for this one-time service but you can avoid a weekly class and work at your own pace.
Some people like to personalize a tallit bag with the child’s name in Hebrew letters. If this is something that interests you, be sure to purchase a canvas that has enough blank areas to fit the name. A needlepoint store will usually paint the name on for you free of charge if you have purchased the canvas there and you bring them a diagram with the exact Hebrew lettering. I preferred having my kids’ initials embroidered with the date of the service on the satin lining inside the bag, rather than be a part of the outside design. And don’t forget to add your own initials as the artist.
Even a bag with just plain needlepoint stitches that you taught yourself is something to be extremely proud of. What makes a bag beautiful is the time and care dedicated to its creation. If you buy your canvas online and are just doing plain stitches, I still suggest you call the store to ask them to send you suggested threads in the right colors and materials to finish your piece.
A word of caution – make sure you buy the entire amount of threads needed to completely finish your project before you begin! That may include a few extra skeins if you are a beginner (and even if you are not) because you might make some mistakes and waste some yarn. There’s this thing called a dye lot. Fibers are dyed in batches, and if you run out of yarn and are forced to buy some from another dye lot, your entire project will look sloppy. Even a yarn with the same manufacturer and color name could look completely different and could ruin your project. The only way to fix this problem would be to rip out the entire section and completely redo it. You don’t want this to happen.
The basic needlepoint stitch is called the basketweave or continental, depending on where you live. The best way to remember is that you stitch diagonally from California to New York and nearly everything follows this same diagonal. You can find hundreds of videos on Youtube explaining exactly how to start your yarn, stitch evenly and tie off your yarn.
A typical canvas comes in a stitch measurement of either 13 or 18. That refers to how many stitches per inch or how small the holes are on the canvas. Most tallit bags are 13 stitches to the inch because it allows more durable, thicker yarns like wools to be utilized.
The even tension of the canvas and your stitches is critical. Canvases are stapled onto wooden frames to keep them taut while in progress. Keeping them this way is essential to uniform stitching. I usually ask the store to re-staple my piece a couple times as I’m working to keep it super tight; a loose canvas is annoying and can ruin the look of a project.
It’s nice to be able to transport your project while you are working on it. When I began needlepointing, I found a large, quilted tote bag at T.J. Maxx that I’ve literally been using for 20 years. It was $15. You can find fancy project bags at needlepoint stores for hundreds of dollars; that’s a waste, in my opinion.
Aside from a bad dye lot, one of the greatest fears of a needlepointer is to drop your needle. That little piece of sharp metal is so darn hard to see and often bounces, giving you no idea where it landed. To avoid a trip to the emergency room with a bloody foot, I suggest you invest in a magnetic storage case and needle minder and diligently use it every time you stitch. I confess that I have dropped my needle way too many times, and ended up crawling on my hands and knees in a desperate search, only to finally bring out the vacuum.
So much love, time and money go into the creation of a tallit bag. Honestly, people who haven’t made one themselves really have no idea what a valuable work of art it is. That’s something between you and an excited 13-year-old who proudly opens up a beautiful bag and removes a tallit for the opening blessing on that important day. It is a gift that will be your legacy as that child grows up, always remembering the love you put into creating a piece of personalized Judaica.
Will you be needlepointing a tallit bag? Let us know in the comments below! And, if you are looking for more B’nai Mitzvah info, make sure to check out these other BMA blog posts: