Thursday, August 30, 2012

Sewing memorials

My friend Felice Sachs has kind of by accident developed a niche specialty in fiber art: she makes memorials out of the clothing of dead people.  She's done several projects, making quilts, blankets or wall hangings as keepsakes for bereaved wives and children.  Just this week she finished up her latest commission: a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl for a woman whose mother had died.  Traditionally only men wore tallit, but in recent years Conservative and Reform Jewish women have taken to wearing the garments as well.  But rather than simply buy commercially made shawls, many women make their own or have them made in a more feminine style.

I saw the project halfway through, when it was just pinned to a backing and not all of the decisions had been made about how to finish it.  It was stunning and I asked Felice if I could write about it when it was completed.  Felice and her client, Ellen Shaikun, graciously agreed to share this beautiful piece with me and with you.

Sometimes Felice's clients bring over huge piles of clothing and let her choose which ones to use in the memorial.  Other times they talk together about which garments are most evocative and what they should do with them.  This time Felice and Ellen decided to use five old blouses to make up the tallit.  Felice had the brainstorm to cut off the sleeves and position them on the shawl so the arms are metaphorically embracing the wearer.

Fortunately the five blouses were color-coordinated -- four neutrals and one gorgeous dark orangey red -- so the project had harmony from the get-go.  One of the blouses was voluminous, providing enough lace and lacy edging to fill in the ends of the shawl.

Even though she cut each sleeve into two parts, that wasn't enough to make up the finished design, so Felice constructed some faux sleeves from the rest of the blouses, and put faux button closures on some of the sleeve backs that didn't actually include plackets or buttonholes.

Here's Ellen wearing the tallit.

But there's more.  You'll notice the ceremonial tzitzit fringes on the four corners of the tallit.  They are the most important ritual element of the prayer shawl, and tomorrow I'll show you how they are made.

Update:  I've linked this to the weekly show-and-tell at Off the Wall Fridays.  Check it out to see what other fiber artists are up to this week.


  1. I do the same thing. It all started when a man came into the LQS with a garbage bag of clothes wanting a quilt for his deceased 11 yr old son (it was the 10th anniversary) - they gave my name. It was hard to make since he even included the coat they cut off the boy at the accident scene - but it came out really nice. Since then I've done 4 more - the last was last year where the client wanted a queen size. None of them was nearly as hard as the first though!

  2. I have made quilts out of clothes, but the owners were still alive. I think the shaw is amazing!

  3. What a fabulous memory of her mother. Such a great idea to use the sleeves to wrap around her in love.

  4. I have done this with more traditional quilting and the tshirts and shirts of loved ones. I also have done a blue jean quilt as well.

    None are easy.

    The shawl is incredibly beautiful and deeply personal.


  5. This is brilliant. I started to use the small blank and apron my mom used in my work in progress. I never thought of something so beautiful and emotionally calming as a prayer shawl. Brilliant! Thank you for writing about this.

  6. I finally know what to do with those shirts I've been holding onto since my son moved away what seems like fourteen lifetimes ago. Thank you for posting about such a beautiful, meaningful way to use cloth.

  7. The shawls is beautiful and has so much meaning. I have a quilt on my design wall done in 30s colors. I am alternating the pieced squares with doilies that were crocheted by my husband's grandmother. I never knew here, but he says he doesn't remember his grandmother without a crochet project in her hands. I will share it on an Off the Wall Friday soon. It doesn't have a significant meaning to me, but my husband really treasures the idea... so that makes it special for me.

  8. wonderful. I love the arms (sleeves) embracing the wearer - great touch. Have you seen the work of Sherri Lynn Wood (aka Daintytime?). She does a lot of this kind of work as well and it's marvelous.