Dyed and Gone to Heaven – An Online Magazine and Needlework Resource  

by Rita Vainius

Reticule, etui, chatelaine, gipser, minaudier, necessaire, porte-monnaie. By whatever name, the purse is in modern times typically considered a feminine object.

In 11th century Europe, however, it was men who controlled the purse strings. The almonier, a small leather pouch about two inches square and drawn together with leather thongs, held coins to dispense to the needy. It was worn suspended from a belt along with a sword or knife. Later, though still utilitarian in nature, it evolved into a fashion accessory for both sexes and took on different shapes and sizes, which came to be decorated with elaborate ornamentation. Since it was a status symbol, it was prominently displayed and came to be constructed of handwoven textiles, reeds, beads, metals and other materials in addition to leather. Metallic frames, chains and clasps were developed and incorporated into the overall design.

Purses gradually began to be used for purposes other than holding coins. Keys, sewing and writing implements, combs, mirrors, eating utensils and medicines were extravagances to be coveted and protected. Elongated, tasseled purses suspended by a pair of tabs over wide leather belts became common fashion accents for the well to do. The more lowly folk and tradespeople commonly used their purses to hold utensils, tools and other items specific to their own profession.

Purses that incorporated needlework made their debut in Europe as early as the 12th century. Needlework purses have often erroneously been classified en-masse as needlepoint. Many other techniques were used: handwoven tapestry, turkey work, crewel, Berlin work, cross stitch, tambour work and others.

A perennially favorite choice of purse for at least a century was the petit point type from France, Austria and Hungary. A fine petit point would contain approximately 900 stitches to the square inch executed in tent stitch with exceedingly fine wools in pastels, vibrant hues and variegated colors. The prevailing patterns depicted courting scenes, pastorals, garden landscapes, florals and mythological figures. These purses sported brass frames encrusted with jet, marcasite, rhinestones and other gems and had chain handles and luxurious fabric linings.


In the 14th century seal bags appeared, so named because they were made to carry state papers and were decorated with the royal seal, coat-of-arms, maxims or heavily padded faces in a form of embroidery the English called stumpwork. Monetary gifts to royalty, separate from taxes, were presented in embroidered purses made of silver or gold thread and constituted a subtle form of bribery. Ladies bags of the 14th century, though usually less elaborate than men's, were worn on long cords or straps reaching below the knees almost to the ankles. The chatelaine, versatile in style and utilitarian in nature, was composed of a silver or gold pin or clasp worn at the waist by the mistress of the house and contained a series of chains on swivel hooks to hold objects useful for everyday chores, such as keys, sewing implements, writing tools, match safe, penwipe or other implements. A small purse might also constitute one of the accoutrements. A dance chatelaine would accommodate a program, pomander, fan, mirror or charm.


Chatelaine: Though this purse made by Martina Weber, is not old, it is typical of the type used by the lady of the house many centuries ago. From left to right, it includes a silk Bargello needle holder, a replica of a pewter needle case, a dololly (an accessory to pull the last piece of thread through stitches on the back. Also part of the dololly is a heart pin with a wire loop), a pair of scissors in a pewter case, a silver butterfly pincushion attached to a square brooch, a silver and red velvet charm, an Austrian wear-at-the-belt purse made of metal and an "Emery" strawberry made of red felt containing powder for sharpening and cleaning needles and pins.

Purses of all kinds, including chatelaines, were displayed outside the dress until the 16th century. Then, in the late 1500's, the new popularity of the hoop and the farthingale made possible the wearing of pockets under voluminous skirts. These pockets were separate articles of clothing made up of saclike pouches secured about the waist and were accessible through slits cut into the fabric of the skirt. As they were hidden from view, they were not fashioned from choice materials, but were simple in design and often unadorned. If embroidery was used, it was often crewel and done around the opening which lined up with the slit in the skirt. Because of the less costly materials and the simplicity of execution, pockets were often presented as gifts to their elders by children learning to stitch. Some were made in a patchwork style similar to the crazy quilts of later times.

In the 17th century, purses were once again brought out into the open functioning as a definite fashion statement. On wedding purses, which were a tradition with royalty, the likeness of the bride and groom was painted on porcelain or ceramic and applied to the material. Late in the 17th century tambour work migrated from its origins in the Orient to Europe. Tambouring is a method of embroidery which uses a hook to produce a tiny chain stitch. In China, a very fine hook was used, producing a nearly microscopic stitch, sometimes known as the "forbidden stitch." Blindness was a fairly common occurance for embroiderers employing this stitch and it was eventually declared illegal in China.. The French, who became masters of this art, tended to produce stitches of a lighter and more open character.

With the advent of the men's greatcoat and waistcoat at the start of the 18th century, the innovative addition of exterior pockets became the rage and somewhat supplanted the use of the purse by men. The original small leather pouch eventually evolved into enormous saddlebags. Hunting men also used game bags, generous in size and elaborate in design.

Pocketbooks - flat, envelope shaped accessories, which were folded in the middle and secured by long tapes with the edges bound with silk or twill ­ fitted into the pockets of clothing and were used by both men and women. Embroidered on canvas with silk and wool yarns, the stitches employed were tent, crewel, rice stitch, Irish stitch, cross stitch and, by far the most popular, bargello, including both flame stitch and Hungarian point. Commonly, they were personalized with the name of the owner worked into the design along with the date of presentation.

Miser's purses - also known as the long purse, ring purse, or stocking purse ­ came on the scene in the 1780's and were primarily intended to hold coins and currency. This bag was an elongated tube-shaped affair made of meshed silk or other fabric, or were knitted, crocheted or netted. They were decorated with beadwork, tassels, fringe and metallic ornaments and were designed to be worn over the belt with the ends hanging down, thus freeing the hands. Favored by both men and women, these bags were popular right into the 20th century.

Other coin purses from this period included the Tam-o-Shanter, named for its resemblance to the cap worn by the poor Irish whose homes were called shanties. It was a small knitted or crocheted bag with an eight-pointed star which incorporated beads. The shilling purse, which hung on a fine chain about the neck and was usually finished with a solid ball at the base, was fashionable in Britain. In France, a porte-monnaie was used similarly and was made from fabric, leather, metal or shell.

The first reticules made their appearance in 1791, concurrent with the introduction of slimmer and straighter skirts made fashionable by the revival of classical Greek and Roman costume, which stresed simplicity of both design and materials. They were made specifically for ladies and functioned as containers for a handkerchief, fan, card money, keys and perfume bottle. Produced in a variety of shapes and sizes they showed a common characteristic: they were closed at the top by long drawstrings shirred through a series of rings. Often made of the same material as the dress, they could be worn suspended from the waistband by a brooch, but more often dangled from the wrist or arm. This type of purse remained in fashion for over 100 years.

Popular from the 1870's to the 1900's was the purse enclosed muff which was practical and handsome. Made of fur, velvet, silk or even ostrich feathers, these muff-purses could be diminutive or as large as two feet square.

Mesh bags, fashioned from gold or sterling silver, were handmade prior to 1900 and could be afforded by only the wealthiest women. In 1909 a mesh making machine was invented and white or pot metal became the basis of the bags thereafter. Skillful advertising transformed mesh from a luxury item to a necessity for the fashion conscious woman. The Flapper era in particular saw the popularization of these purses with the application of enamel over the mesh in bright, bold and sometimes discordant colors in zig-zag lines, stripes and motifs of flowers and birds in Art Deco style.

(Shown on the left a modern interpretation of a bird on a bag designed by Julie Pischke, featured in this month's Designer Spotlight. See her feature for her other bags designs.)

The handbag, made to be carried in the hand exclusively, has remained a vital fashion fixture though styles have changed dramatically over time. It has increased in size as modern woman has added to its contents items one would never have found in purses years ago. The handbag soon evolved to include shoulder straps and the diversity of shapes,sizes, materials and mechanisms seems to know no bounds. Although the variety of manufactured handbags is staggering, there are still those of us willing to put the time, effort and care into handmade bags. Patchwork, needlepoint, beaded, knitted ­ whatever our preference, there's a technique and a style to suit everyone.

Shown above a modern day "Carpet Bag" designed by Julie Pischke of Island Needlework Designs.

Notes on the bags shown courtesy of Martina Weber:

The following purses which are illustrated above, are from the private collection of Martina Weber of Chatelaine. If you missed her Designer Feature on our October website, go to http://www.caron-net.com/oct98files/oct98des.html or you can visit her web site at http://www.chatelaine.net

Doll Purse: circa 1905-1915. Made of black silk taffeta, with hand painted face on a wooden head, framed by a bonnet in the style of the period. The skirt itself forms the body of the purse, lined with silk moire, including a suede portemonnaie. The skirt is covered by an overskirt of netting with an elaborate border of bugle beads. Also inside is a folding etui made of silk with a mirror on one side and a pouch for playing cards on the other.

Mini Perl: Purse featuring extremely tiny beads: circa 1880-1905. It also includes pearly beads
inserted into the frame. There is a burlap bag forming a lining, which was once covered with silk. It was made as an accessory for evening wear to carry the "necessaires" of the lady.

Metal Perl: circa 1910. Made of a "raised chenille" type fabric, now worn flat. The beads are of polished metal, hexagonally shaped.

Wiener Petit Point: Is an evening bag from the early 60's. Vienna PP is famous for its tiny stitches and is most valued among collectors.

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: No part of this feature story nor the included designs/charts can be reproduced or distributed in any form (including electronic) or used as a teaching tool without the prior written permission of the CARON Collection Ltd. or the featured designers. One time reproduction privileges provided to our web site visitors for and limited to personal use only.

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