Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Creating Textiles: Makers, Methods, Markets. Proceedings of the Sixth Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Inc. New York, NY, September 23–26, 1998 (Earleville, MD: Textile Society of America, Inc., 1999).


Copyright © 1998 by the author(s)


Spanier Arbeit

A tallit is a rectangular piece of fabric with fringes (tzizit) at the four corners. Until fairly recently, it was worn as a prayer shawl exclusively by observant Jewish males over the age of thirteen. In Ashkenazic lands, primarily Germany and Poland, a limited range of materials was used to make a tallit. It was made of wool or silk, and was white or off-white with a black stripe. The center of one long side of the tallit was often distinguished by some form of decoration. This decorated area would be worn at the neck, functioning as a neck band. The decorative band was called the atarah (pI. atarot) meaning crown or diadem. Its decoration usually consisted of a panel of embroidery, sometimes incorporating metal thread. The subject of this paper is one variant of decoration for the atarah which incorporated metal threads and was known as spanier arbeit. It is characterized by a lavish use of metal strips, usually silver or silver coated, sometimes gilded, wrapped over or wound around a cotton or linen core in dense schematized floral or geometric patterns.

Arbeit means work. Combined with the Yiddish term spanier, the term spanier arbeit has been translated as both "spun work," derived from the Yiddish word spinnen, and as "Spanish work," work of a type produced in Spain. The latter interpretation implied that the craft of lace making incorporating silver and gold threads practiced by Jews in fifteenth century Spain was the direct ancestor of spanier arbeit. While Jews of Mallorca, Barcelona and Toledo produced gold and silver lace in twelfth and fifteenth centuries, we have no evidence at this time to connect them to the Eastern European nineteenth century Jewish producers of spanier arbeit. Furthermore, the essential similarity of spanier arbeit to contemporary Russian and Eastern European passementerie and bobbin lace suggests that one need not look to far countries or distant periods for its origins.