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  • Writer's pictureTzipporah Johnston

Designing the Mantle

Happy New Year! I thought it was about time I shared an update on how the Fruit of Her Hands project is coming along.

After a couple of months of sketching and sampling, I have whittled the options down to three possibilities, which I presented at Limmud on the 28th December 2020. They are still subject to tweaking, and the shul that finally adopts the mantle will have an input, but fundamentally these are the final three designs.

The designs are governed by a few principles:

- they need to be beautiful (this is actually a halachic requirement!)

- they need to incorporate the donated fabrics in the form of applique, patchwork, etc.

- As I want a congregation to actually be able to use them, they need to be located

within a recognisable iconographic language and be practical rather than avant- garde, while still feeling contemporary and fresh

Tree of Life

On the left is a sketch of a Torah Mantle with a tree motif, each leaf made with different fabric. On the right is an appliqué sample of the design.
Tree of Life - design and embroidery sample

This first design is within a familiar visual language – each leaf applique is made using a different donated fabric and edged with goldwork embroidery. The Etz Chayyim is a obviously metaphor for the Torah itself, but also I really wanted the mantle to be about life rather than death, commemorating the willingness of the living to serve, rather than memorialising the dead we have sadly lost, so I liked the idea of an image of life and growth.


On the left is a sketch of a Torah Mantle with a grid of 12 squares laid out like the priestly breastplate. On the right is an embroidery sample of the design.
Hoshen - design and embroidery sample

The second design is based on the Hoshen, the priestly breastplate, and uses the donated fabric in small patchwork appliques, edged in goldwork. The idea behind this one is that the Hoshen represents the unity of the Jewish people because each of the Tribes were

represented, but also it was a mediator between God and the people in times of crisis like these. The more I consider it though, although it’s visually striking, and I like the texture of the appliqué panels, I’m less enamoured of this design because it feels like it dwells on calamity rather than celebrating resilience.


On the left is a sketch of a Torah Mantle with a falling jewel pattern. On the right is a sample of the design with appliqué and embroidery.
Jewels - design and sample

This last design gives the impression of a fabric studded with precious jewels, using tiny squares of the donated fabrics “set” into silk and goldwork embroidery surrounds. I like this one because it I think it represents the preciousness of the fabric itself, and the mitzvot that generated it. It also recalls the Eishet Chayil whose worth is “greater than rubies” – a woman who “works willingly with her hands” and “stretches [them] out to the needy”.

I would also like to incorporate a textual element into the final piece, using psukim but also the sewer’s own words about what drives them to volunteer, and one of the nice things about this design is that it would allow that. Because the design elements are weighted towards the bottom, it supports the use of a breastplate. The idea for the breastplate is based on the Kotel and the kvitlach that people put between the stones. This would be goldwork embroidery and mixed media.

Where to from here?

So the next steps are to find a synagogue that would like to host the finished mantle and binder. There’s no such thing as a generic or standard sized sefer Torah, each one is slightly different so any meilim need to be custom made. Once I have a specific sefer in mind I’ll be able to measure it and make the mantle so that it fits perfectly. Since presenting at Limmud I have been contacted by a shul in London that is interested, so I will let you know how that progresses.

Once we have a specific sefer in mind, and the shul is happy with the final design, I’ll start work on the actual mantle and binder, and try applying for some funding to be able to make a wee travelling exhibition so that different communities will be able to see it.

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