What Stories Do Your Ritual Garments Tell?

February 15, 2016

Today, we’re featuring the words and works of Sarah Resnick, the visionary behind Advah Designs. Her talitot tell an amazing story of intentionality, justice, and beauty. We’ll let her tell you more:

Whether we know them or not, everything we wear tells three stories.

  1. First is the story of who made the garment, and where and how they made it, and whether they earned a wage to support their family in the process.
  2. Next is the story of what the garment is made of, whether it’s a plant- or animal-based fiber grown from earth and sun or a synthetic fiber made from plastics and oil.
  3. Finally, there is the story of how long the garment will last — whether it is designed to quickly fade out of fashion, or to be cherished and passed on for generations.

4small_1024x1024As a weaver and maker, the story of how things are made has always intrigued me. When I first had the inkling of an idea that I wanted to make tallitot (Jewish prayer shawls) and chuppot (wedding canopies), I knew I wanted these three stories to be at the heart of every Jewish ritual object that I created. They seem, to me, to be especially important when we choose the tallitot and chuppot that we will use for our lifecycle transitions and then carry with us through the rest of our lives to represent our values.

For most of what we wear, it is almost impossible to find the first story, and we are encouraged to ignore all three stories. Major clothing brands can work with hundreds of factories in dozens of countries, and sorting out who made the clothes and whether they’re working under fair conditions is a challenge investigative journalists can barely puzzle through. We are expected to be uninterested in these three stories and to simply fill our closets and our homes with whatever we find attractive and affordable.

But with the stories at the center, creating Jewish ritual objects with materials that reflect our values shouldn’t be that difficult, right?

A few years ago, I spent days wandering around Manhattan’s Garment District asking wholesalers where and how their fabric was made. They looked at me like I was crazy. So few designers and apparel manufacturers ask these questions — not because they don’t care, necessarily, but because they’re just trying to survive and thrive in an industry where big-box stores seem to be most interested in what’s cheap and quick. So I plodded along on 37th Street, feeling naïve, out of my league, and ready to give up before I’d even started.

And then I met Smita Paul, founder of Indigo Handloom, at a fabric trade show in New York City. Founded in 2003, Indigo Handloom is a mission-driven social enterprise supplying handwoven fabrics and scarves to the fashion industry. In the past 12 years, it has created hundreds of thousands of scarves and fabrics with a workforce of several hundred weavers, spinners, and dyers in rural Indian villages. By making handwoven fabrics, their weavers can make a living for themselves while supporting an average of eight family members.

24_1024x1024As I sat with Smita and felt the many hundreds of fabrics her weavers create, I was drawn to a special fabric that was a blend of silk and handspun khadi cotton. It was heavenly soft and so full of character, and I could immediately picture it with the tallit stripes I’d been imagining. As I felt the threads between my fingers, I thought: “This is holy cloth. So fitting for the tallitot it will become.”

I’ve just started sharing these tallitot and their stories with the wider Jewish community, and I’ve been so inspired by the response. I am hearing that people hunger for a connection to the people and stories behind their ritual objects — and really, what could be more Jewish?

We are a people who love to dwell in the questions, and who know that the heart of every answer should be a story that strengthens communities and challenges us to bring beauty and meaning to our rituals.

Guest blog post by Sarah Resnick

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