In Shabbat Daf 96, we hear a lot about weavers throwing needles and shuttles (the tool that holds the thread while weaving). Is weaving a dangerous activity? What is going on here?
The Gemara asks, why do weavers need needles?
One answer is that sometimes you have loose ends when you are weaving. When you start a new row, or a new color, you will be left with some ends that need to be woven into the fabric with a needle. This needle cannot be too sharp or it will tear the fabric. The needles were probably made of bone or wood, and rounded at the end. Tapestry needles were also needed for the Mishkan because the large pieces of fabric were made in sections, so it was necessary to sew them together.
Shemot 26: 1-2 describes how the fabrics for the Mishkan were made in pieces (source: Sefaria.com).
אֶת־הַמִּשְׁכָּ֥ן תַּעֲשֶׂ֖ה עֶ֣שֶׂר יְרִיעֹ֑ת שֵׁ֣שׁ מָשְׁזָ֗ר וּתְכֵ֤לֶת וְאַרְגָּמָן֙ וְתֹלַ֣עַת שָׁנִ֔י כְּרֻבִ֛ים מַעֲשֵׂ֥ה חֹשֵׁ֖ב תַּעֲשֶׂ֥ה אֹתָֽם׃
As for the Tabernacle, make it of ten strips of cloth; make these of fine twisted linen, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, with a design of cherubim worked into them.
The length of each cloth shall be twenty-eight cubits, and the width of each cloth shall be four cubits, all the cloths to have the same measurements.
Interestingly, the rabbis speak specifically of tapestry weaving. The curtain (parochet) in particular had designs woven into it. In fact, we understand that the parochet had different designs on each side…a kind of double tapestry weaving which seems very complicated.
Tapestry weaving is a type of weaving in which shuttles with different colors need to be changed very frequently to create the pattern or picture. The shuttles are woven around just a few threads at a time. I have attached some pictures below so you can see how many different shuttles the weaver has to deal with at one time. Unlike regular weaving where you actually do “throw” the shuttle from one end of the loom to the other, tapestry weaving is a slow, painstaking process. It is like painting with thread. In the days before commercial yarn stores, I could envision a situation in which weavers shared shuttles when one person ran out of a particular color, especially if they were working on large pieces that were going to be sewn together into one piece. But to pass a shuttle to another person, a weaver would need to detach it from her own part of the weaving first.
In Talmudic times, perhaps a reed was used as a shuttle (בוכיאר), but way back in the time of the Mishkan, people may have used wooden or bone tools for weaving such as these:
I think it is fascinating that the rabbis tried to envision the weaving space, and the working methods of the weavers for the Mishkan. Archaeologists often try to recreate work spaces in their research. When they discover a building and tools, they try to imagine what the workshop or industrial operation looked like. Here too, the rabbis are thinking about human behavior and taking into account the exact size of the tapestries produced for the Mishkan in order to discuss the laws of carrying on Shabbat.
Finally, below is a picture of a spindle whorl made of a reused pottery shard. In Shabbat 95 and 96, there was a discussion about whether a clay vessel with a hole in it is still a useful vessel. Many times a broken or perforated clay vessel could be used for other purposes, and these spindle whorls are very common. A spindle whorl might be the second or third use of a piece of pottery, but it is still a useful tool. I assume this has implications for issues of ritual purity, and perhaps we will run into them later in our studies.