When I was growing up there was only one kind of tallit in shul: white with black stripes. As I grew older I began to see thin silver or gold stripes appear between the black stripes of the classic wool design, and the occasional tallit with blue stripes.
Today, the prospective tallit buyer has an enormous spectrum of prayer shawls to choose from. In charedi and some Modern Orthodox, the black-on-white tallit still dominates the scene. At the other extreme, in Reform, Reconstructionist, Jewish Renewal, Humanist and other types of congregations you may have never heard of, you’ll see rainbow-stripe tallits, Organza silk, earth tones, Jerusalem motifs, Seven Species motifs and everything else under the sun. Between the two is a broad expanse filled with conservative models with a dash of color: a wool tallit with gray stripes instead of black, a silk tallit with a Star of David pattern on the atara (neckband) and a range of hand-woven prayer shawls made at various weaving factories throughout Israel.
The first order of business when you set out to buy a prayer shawl is to select the type of fabric you prefer. The least expensive fabric is synthetic or a wool-synthetic blend. This type of tallit typically sells for $35-$100, depending on the size you choose.
Wool is the classic standby, the “default option,” and it is considered preferable according to halacha. Typical prices are $60-$150 (again depending on size, of course) for a basic wool prayer shawl. The more expensive wool tallits are made of a denser weave and may include special features such as wool corners and stain-resistant fabric. A handmade wool tallit can cost anywhere from $150 to $600 an up.
Silk is often used for designer tallits because it enables greater detail and sheen, and cotton is sometimes used at weaving factories.
As noted above, the age-old wool tallit is invariably white with black stripes. Some Sephardic Jews have a custom of opting for white with white stripes, which has a very elegant and distinguished look. Ivory and off-white handwoven tallits look traditional, yet unique and distinctive at the same time. Silk tallits are typically more colorful, offering finer detail work and sheen.
Wool and synthetic tallits are also available in vibrant hues. White with blue stripes seems to be a popular choice among prayer shawl buyers, possibly because it is not too eccentric, yet adds a bit of color and flare, or perhaps because it is associated with Israel (the Israeli flag is white with blue stripes). If you have a favorite color, you can find just about any hue, whether you like orange or teal, rainbow or gray.
Those in the market to buy a tallit with a modern look will find a wide range of motifs: the Old City of Jerusalem, the menora, the Star of David, the Seven Species, pomegranates, etc., or a medley of attractive colors.
Handmade tallits offer rich colors, fine detail work, embroidery and luxurious fabrics.