This week we had a customer who had decided to go with a hand-woven Gabrieli tallit, but kept debating between cotton and wool. At first she ordered it in wool, but then had second thoughts:
I have a question about wool vs. cotton. I saw a tallit today in our synagogue gift shop and it was thick and nubbly. I really liked the weight of it. The tag on it said linen. Is that what you mean by cotton? And if so I’d like to change my order to cotton.
Her question put me in a tight spot. Why? Please don’t tell anybody, but I didn’t know why “nubbly” means. Having lived in Israel for over 20 years, I haven’t enriched my English vocabulary much over the years. So I had to look up the definition before proceeding with a reply.
Gabrieli uses relatively thick yarns for both the wool and the cotton. They look quite similar. Some people can hardly tell them apart. The cotton has a slightly tighter weave and therefore the detail is a bit finer. Both of them are weighty and textured.
Then she went back to a follow-up question about linen:
Interesting. Which one would you say is closer to linen? And why is the cotton a bit more expensive than wool?
Actually I don’t know for sure why the cotton is more expensive. Either because the yarn costs the Gabrieli weaving studio more (they use high quality yarns from suppliers in faraway places) or because it requires a bit more time at the loom.
Cotton is closer to linen than wool. But I was a bit surprised to hear that she had come across a linen tallit. From a halachic standpoint, a linen tallit is quite problematic. Among other issues, to avoid the prohibition of shaatnez, you have to use linen tzitzit, and kosher linen tzitzit strings are hard to come by. Usually linen is only used to make tallitot for those who have serious fabric allergies.
Some people assume that linen and cotton are about the same
, but that’s not the case as all. Linen is made from the fibers of the flax plant, whereas cotton is of course made from cotton plants.
Linen is a nice fabric, which makes it tempting to use it to make tallitot, but I avoid selling linen tallitot because of the problematic halachic issues involved. In the past I’ve toyed with the idea of making tallit and tallit katan products from hemp or bamboo fabrics, but those ideas never came to fruition. For now I’m sticking with tried-and-true wool and cotton.