Ivory silk prayer shawls bordered with light blue stripes are typical of Italian Jewry. The silk fabric and coloring of the Italian talled (Hebrew, tallit) were usually combined with additional embroidered or appliqué decorations. A varied repertoire of stitches was often applied with ivory silk threads, lending the talled elegance, solemnity, and a textural richness. Sometimes the talled was decorated with appliqué needle-lace patches and ribbons or with metal thread embroidery. To personalize the talled, the owner’s monogrammed initials were often embroidered onto the material. Prayer shawls of this kind became highly fashionable in the nineteenth century but had been produced since the seventeenth century.
The talled illustrated here bears seven light blue woven stripes on narrow borders. Its symmetrical decorations at the four corners display a central motif of a bouquet of flowers held by a ribbon and framed by a square floral design. At the center of the upper border, the TIL monogram is embroidered in capital, cursive letters.
From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, Jews in central and northern Italy were involved in various activities connected with the silk industry. They produced, wove, and traded in silk, worked as tailors, and sometimes were even allowed to join the silk guilds. The availability of this fabric might explain the popularity of silk prayer shawls among Italian Jews throughout the generations.
The talled was one of the traditional gifts that the Jewish bride would give the bridegroom as part of the exchange of presents between the two families. The talled was usually presented together with a suitable bag and a silver-bound prayer book. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially in the Piedmont region, the talled was often listed in the bride’s trousseau together with its monetary value.
The bridegroom probably wore the talled for the first time at the wedding ceremony. Following the tradition, which continues to this day, the same talled was draped over the couple as they stood under the huppah or wedding canopy.
Some prayer shawls of this kind—but of particularly large dimensions—are known still to be extant. Apparently, they were used as wedding canopies. For this purpose, they were either especially designed and made to size, or adapted at a later stage by adjoining two separate prayer shawls to make a canopy cloth.
From the Israel Museum publications:
Juhasz, Esther (ed.), The Jewish Wardrobe from the Collection of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 5 Continents Editions, Milan and The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 2012