Small embroidered bags or purses were popular accessories in the 16th century. What comes to mind first are probably the small square bags most associated with Elizabeth I and the New Year’s gift rolls. There are several extant examples of this type of drawstring bags and Jacqui Carey has included one in her carefully researched book Elizabethan Stitches, Case Study 24. A similar purse is in the collection of Newstead Abbey. An interesting fact about the Newstead Abbey bag is the difference in the stitching on the two sides. The design is identical and one side is fully and carefully stitched with many raised elements using a compact file stitch in the background to completely cover the linen canvas. The back is a little less carefully stitched and there are fewer raise elements. The background stitch is much less dense. It almost gives the impression that the embroiderer needed to finish the back a little quicker, possibly getting tired of the repetition, or perhaps needing it finished a little more quickly so it could be of use.
Once again, Wingfield Digby’s Elizabethan Embroidery is a source of further detail. Pages 69 to 70 provides a thorough accounting of the documentary evidence in the later 16th century. Often referred to as a “swete bagge” they could be embroidered in different techniques and many are “ymbrodered all over with Venis gold, silver & sylke of sundry cullers” similar to the Newstead Abbey purse For those of you who are really keen and want to try your had at reading a 16th century manuscript, there is a digitized copy of the gift roll from 1576 (Add. MS 4827) on the British Library website http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?Source=BrowseScribes&letter=A&ref=Add_MS_4827
There are several small sweet bags in the Metropolitan Museum Collection. Some are dated 16th century and others 17th but there is no indication of what makes them one or the other. Perhaps the date is based on the design, the technique, the materials or a combination of factors. They are all worked in a counted stitch technique on a linen canvas ground but the 16th century one has an extraordinary amount of raised work and the design is extremely ornate. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/81553?ft=sweet+bag&offset=0&rpp=40&pos=2 Unusual too, is the absence of plaited or braid stitches for the scrolled framework, instead a flattened coil of round gold wire is couched on the surface.
Purses were also popular in the earlier half of the century and there are several listed in Henry VIII’s inventory. The two small panels with Henry’s cypher and a Tudor rose featured in previous posts may have once been a purse. The focus of this post is one of the several small bags in the collection of Snowshill Manor. It has a very different shape to the typical sweet bag and the embroidery is not at all similar. It has been dated to between 1500 and 1600 but it doesn’t assign a place of origin. Perhaps a close look at the details will provide a clue.
The metal threads are extremely tarnished but there are areas that appear to have been originally gold in colour but the content of the metal is unknown. All the stitching threads appear to be white or natural colour linen. Green velvet is applied over the linen as a base for the main design area. The design within features five multiple petaled flowers in three sizes with stems originating at the centre bottom of the curve. The padding for the petals is white and stitched through the ground and each is covered with lengths of wire purl. The wire in the purl is very inconsistent, some flat and some round often in the same length. The centres of the flowers are red glass beads that are transparent. Some of the outlines of the petals and the stems are coiled plate without a core, possibly an early form of lizerine. A line of twisted plate accentuates the larger stems. On the surrounding border there are small flowers on scrolling stems with small leaves, some of which are filled with green glass beads. The background of the border as been filled with zig-zagged plate. The raised band outlining the border looks to be a tight group of linen threads covered with zig-zagged plate. Above and below the raised zig-zag is a line of twisted plate. Red silk is appliqued over the linen ground at the top and the double row of holes for the braided drawstring have not been reinforced in any way.
The materials used for the Snowshill purse are often associated with professional work. The twisted plate hints that it may have originated outside England or at least been influenced by techniques from the continent. Extant religious embroideries from France in the 16th and 17th century use a considerable amount of plate very creatively.