The crafting community is tight, like a well-woven wimple (see page 181), so it was easy for Diana Drew to find plenty of examples of needlepoint, knitting, and felt work. The difficult part was narrowing them down to the 30 choices that appear in her new book, Jewish Threads: A Hands-On Guide to Stitching Spiritual Intention into Jewish Fabric Crafts (Jewish Lights), written with her husband, Robert Grayson.
Drew, the editorial director of Stella Hart Public Relations, is also copresident of the National Council of Jewish Women’s West Morris section, where the inspiration for the book originated while members worked on fabricating a huppa as a group project.
It wasn’t the simple “how-to” that intrigued Drew; she had already worked as an editor on several books on crafting. This time she wanted to go a step further, she told NJ Jewish News in a phone interview, “to get into the spiritual intention behind why people were making these crafts.”
The 30 projects in Jewish Threads were culled from dozens of suggestions from around the country over the course of 18 months of research. “Some of it was through word of mouth; some of it was through newspapers like the Jewish News,” she said. “I chose the ones that I felt had important and meaningful stories.”
Drew admitted she is a novice when it comes to crafting. “The pieces in the book were more difficult and more sophisticated than my level of skill, and I felt these were marvelous pieces that I wanted to showcase.”
Indeed, the majority of the projects in Jewish Threads are not for beginners. “You need to have some basic sewing skills,” Drew said, as well as knitting and felting. “You need a basic background in fabric craft, but not a lot.”
Some of the more complex items — like the huppa made by the NCJW members — are better done as a group, allowing newbies to work alongside those who specialize in one specific material or method. The book also includes some simpler ideas designed for parents and children to work on together. Each item featured includes a pattern, a list of required materials, and detailed instructions.
Grayson, who said he is not a crafter, wrote the introductions for each project. “I have gone to a lot of shows and long been an admirer of things I can’t do,” he said. “What was really interesting about this project is that it gave me an opportunity to reconnect a lot with tradition, to see how that tradition worked into a lot of these crafts and how far back Jewish crafts go.”
Grayson said he and his wife had an “ulterior motive” for publishing the book. In addition to having the reader come away with an artistic and useful product, the authors wanted to urge crafters to use creative collaboration as bonding time. “We would like people who may have older relatives involved in craftwork to seek them out and learn about it. We felt that with a lot of the technology today it’s becoming a dying art and we were hoping we would find people interested in learning the old ways, whether through a hallah cover or a tallit.
“I love seeing the heart and soul they put into these crafts,” said Grayson. “I guess I’m old enough to remember my grandmother doing it and even working with my aunts. You don’t see that much anymore.”
The couple, who live in Randolph, also hope Jewish Threads will be an introduction to the history of the items represented by the crafts. “Why do we have a tallit? Why do we have a shulhan cover, a hallah cover?” Grayson said, adding that the answers to such questions often get lost in “our busy world. Reading about it, researching it I couldn’t help but think this is a lovely tradition we have as Jewish people that we cover the hallah, that we beautify synagogues with a lot of these different crafts.”
Going to the synagogue — they belong to Adath Shalom in Parsippany — has new meaning, they said; they now see the ritual items as giving houses of worship their own “personalities.”
A number people Drew interviewed for the book mentioned the tradition of hiddur mitzva, enhancing the beauty of a mitzva by presenting it beyond the merely practical. “That was a lot of the motivation behind this for a lot of these craft artists,” she said. “A lot of them got in touch with their own spirituality by making them, and we were hoping that others — in reading through the book and maybe trying some of these project — would get in touch with their own spirituality.”
“We have a lot of different areas of the country that are represented in the book, and that shows that a lot of the traditions are carried throughout the U.S. plus a few from Israel,” Grayson said. “It’s really great to show that there are people in San Antonio and there are people in Minnesota and people out in Alabama, San Francisco — and they are all involved in traditional Jewish crafts.”