The decorative work known as shpanyer arbet has been translated as both “spun work,” derived from the Yiddish word shpinen, and as “Spanish work.” The latter fancifully implies a connection between shpanyer arbet and the craft of lace making incorporating silver and gold threads practiced by Jews of Mallorca, Barcelona, and Toledo in fifteenth-century Spain. Shpanyer arbet is similar to nineteenth-century East European passementerie and bobbin lace, from which it is most likely derived.
Shpanyer arbet loom. Sasów, Poland (now Sasiv, Ukr.), late 19th–early 20th century. (Museum of Ethnography and Crafts, L’viv)
Shpanyer arbet was created on a table that held a rotating drum and a wooden framework from which hung four bobbins. The bobbins were threaded with cotton or linen, which was woven to produce a cord. Metal thread on shuttles was woven across the cotton or linen. The resulting cord was coiled, following a paper pattern resting on the drum, and secured to itself. The pieces were used to decorate articles of clothing. A surviving example of a machine used to produce shpanyer arbet, exhibited in the Lwów Municipal Museum of Artistic Crafts in 1933 at an exhibition of Jewish Artistic Crafts, is now in the collection of the Museum of Ethnography and Crafts, L’viv, Ukraine. Several articles of Jewish clothing were decorated with shpanyer arbet: the kipah (the head covering worn by observant Jewish males); the collar and cuffs of the kitl (a white robe worn by adult males on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover, often ultimately used as a burial shroud); the brusttukh (plastron); a woman’s Sabbath and festival cap; and the ‘atarah (collar) of a man’s prayer shawl. It has been suggested that the craft of shpanyer arbet production originated in Poland and Galicia around the eighteenth century. It may have been produced in a number of towns, including Berdichev. But Sasów, near Brody on the border between Galicia and the Ukraine, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time, is considered to be the home of the craft. Mordekhai Leib Margulies is credited with establishing the art in Sasów when he arrived in 1830 and established a workshop to produce shpanyer arbet prayer-shawl collars. The workers were called shpanyer makhers (spanier weavers), and the craft was learned through apprenticeships. Initially, the craftsmen were all male, though later, women and girls were employed as well. They worked from patterns drawn either by the person who would actually create the piece, or by freelancers.
The period from the late nineteenth century to the 1930s was the heyday of the production of shpanyer arbet. Shpanyer arbet production appears to have been a Jewish craft, producing items for exclusively Jewish use. Photographs, as well as contemporary paintings by artists including Maurycy Gottlieb (1856–1879) and Izidor Kaufmann (1853–1921) depict individuals wearing articles of clothing decorated with shpanyer arbet, demonstrating pride of ownership and a degree of affluence. Some patterns were popular in particular areas, such as one known as Moldauer (from Moldavia). Groups of Jews purchased patterns of religious or ideological significance—for example, Belz Hasidim preferred ‘atarot with a kepl (head) pattern, while Zionists were partial to a Star of David pattern. The industry had declined by the 1930s, perhaps due to increasing production costs and changing styles. However, craftsmen still exist who make shpanyer arbet artifacts in the traditional way.
Giza Frankel, “Little Known Handicrafts of Polish Jews in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries” Journal of Jewish Art 2 (1974): 42–49; Esther Juhasz, “Shpanyer Arbet,” in Treasures of Jewish Galicia: Judaica from the Museum of Ethnography and Crafts in Lvov, Ukraine, ed. Sarah Harel Hoshen, pp. 149–159 (Tel Aviv, 1996); Alfred Rubens, A History of Jewish Costume (New York, 1967).