The ground fabric is linen canvas with 32 threads per inch. The vines and tendrils are worked in plaited braid stitch and chain stitch using DMC metallic thread in gold, and the background is worked in slanted Gobelin stitch using the same thread in silver. All remaining embroidery on the front is done in detached buttonhole stitch using silk buttonhole thread; the acorns are padded with wool and the rose is worked over a wire frame, with a center of pearl glass beads.

The back is worked in rococo stitch, known as queen stitch in the 16th and 17th centuries. It uses the same buttonhole silk as the front, but with the three plies separated and used individually. The knotwork pattern is filled with black and pearl glass beads.

The bag is lined in red silk, and edged with a fingerloop braid. The drawstrings are also fingerloop braids. The drawstring pulls are made with a wooden bead for the core, which was wrapped with linen thread to form a fabric covering, which was then used as the basis for brick stitch and detached buttonhole stitch embroidery. The loops were made of wire which was then wrapped in silk thread. The acorn tassels also have a wire base, and were made in detached buttonhole stitch.

Sweet Bag Front

Elizabethan Sweet Bag Front

While the peak of padded and raised work occurs in the mid- to late 17th century, when it had developed into the style known as stumpwork, there are occasional examples of both types of embroidery throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, with surviving pieces starting to become more frequent at the very end of the 16th century. Some of these pieces include the Devereux bodice, which has large amounts of raised work, and an amazing number of sweet bags.
Sweet bags were quite popular, and numerous ornately embroidered examples have survived from the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. They seem to have had a number of uses, the most prominent one being a sort of gift wrapping for presents of money. Many instances of this are known, due to the keeping of records regarding the New Year’s gifts made to Queen Elizabeth throughout her reign. In fact, by the beginning of the 17th century, for the “gifts” the upper nobility were required to present to the monarch, not only was the amount of money specified, so was the value of the purse in which it was presented (Digby, p. 70).

Elizabeth’s wardrobe accounts indicate that sweet bags were also used to hold perfumed powder for scenting clothes, however, it seems that these were usually not embroidered (Arnold, p. 194).

Design for the front:
The pattern I have used is my own design, using the popular Elizabethan motifs of scrolling vines and roses, along with acorns, which were also used, although not nearly as often as flowers.

The ground cloth was a linen canvas with 32 threads per inch. This is a typical size for sweet bags, according to the technical data presented in Epstein (p. 41-42), where the thread counts given are 28/30, 32/40, 31/30, and 42/38. Dimensions vary somewhat, but 4" x 5" seems to be fairly typical, so that is what I used for my own bag.

Vines and tendrils are in plaited braid stitch and chain stitch using synthetic gold. Although there are occasional early examples of metal threads fine enough to be passed through cloth, it wasn’t until the late 16th century that their use became widespread. The most common stitch using this type of thread was plaited or interlaced braid stitch. This produces a relatively wide band of stitching and leaves very little thread on the back of the cloth, which makes sense when using an expensive product. There are examples of other stitches being used, for example the Margaret Laton jacket (ca. 1610) has the main stems worked in plaited braid stitch, but the smaller tendrils are in chain stitch (Beck, Flowers, p. 14). This is the model I used for this piece.

The background is in slanted Gobelin stitch, done with synthetic silver thread. Despite the gold and brightly colored silks, the surviving sweet bags commonly have a dull and dingy appearance. This is due to the use of silver threads, which of course tarnish over time, for the backgrounds. Either tent stitch or slanted Gobelin stitch, which is typically worked over 1 by 2 threads of the ground cloth, could be used. When new, the effect of the finished piece seen in sunlight is somewhat garish for my own taste, however, it is much more attractive by candlelight.

I used the synthetic metal threads because this was the first time I had done embroidery of this type and I didn’t want to invest a significant amount of money for a piece that I wasn’t even sure I could do. The lower left section of vine shows the reason for this doubt, although eventually there was some improvement as can be seen in the vine leading to the rose, the final section worked.

The acorns are in detached buttonhole stitch padded with wool, and the rose petals are in detached buttonhole stitch worked over a wire frame attached to the ground cloth. By the 17th century, cotton seems to have been the usual padding material for embroidery, but since I spin and had an ample supply of brown wool on hand which wouldn’t show through the stitches, that is what I used. Buttonhole silk was used for both. When I’ve been able to find information beyond the fiber type about the threads used in period embroidery, it generally seems to be spun with very little twist, or sometimes none at all, while the buttonhole silk is spun very tightly. On the other hand, the finished appearance of the stitching matches very well the surviving examples of detached buttonhole stitch embroidery, possibly because both types of thread are made of unbroken filament silk, and most modern embroidery flosses are made with short fibers.

While the methods for making them have changed over the centuries, imitation pearls have been around since the Romans, and even Queen Elizabeth herself is believed to have made use of them.

Sweet Bag Back

Elizabethan Sweet Bag Back

Design for the back:
It is not clear how the backs of sweet bags were treated. All the photographs that I have found show just one side, and written descriptions never mention the backs. Some of the possibilities are:
  1. The back is plainly finished with a backing cloth, which may be decorative but is not embroidered (for example, a pillow at Hardwick Hall (Levey, p.29) is done this way).
  2. The back is embroidered, but with a simpler design/style than the front
  3. The back repeats the design found on the front, or uses a different one with a similar level of complexity.
There is a photo in Beck (Flowers, p. 18) where the edge of the bag is slightly twisted and there appears to be stitching in silver, similar to the front background, on the corner of the back that shows, suggestive of a similar type of embroidery on the back. However, Digby (pp. 71-72) quotes the following items from the lists of New Year’s gifts presented to Queen Elizabeth, which suggest that backs could be either embroidered or left plain: My suspicion is that the third option above was the most likely, except that I don’t think that the padded/raised work would be done on both sides. In the end, I decided based on my own preference for experimenting with yet more styles of Elizabethan embroidery without regard to its appropriateness for the design on the front. With this in mind, I looked at a number of samplers that had small, repeating patterns that I’ve seen only on samplers, not on finished items. Some of these are quite similar to the patterns used on the German counted satin stitch embroideries of the 14th century, which include quite a few small bags that are very much like the Elizabethan sweet bags. This type of pattern also shows up on beaded bags in the 17th century. Also, 18th century pocketbooks could use this sort of pattern as well. This made me feel that those designs, while not likely to be combined with raised work and metal threads, would be quite appropriate for an Elizabethan sweet bag, although there is no basis for this in surviving artefacts. Since this sort of pattern was used in the 14th century, then shows up all through the 16th century in the various pattern books, and are still being seen on samplers in the 17th century, they seemed like a good choice for an Elizabethan piece even if no surviving pieces used that sort of pattern.

While looking through samplers to find a good design, I noticed a pretty little knotwork pattern (Browne and Wearden, p. 37, plate 9) done in queen and plaited braid stitch. Although the sampler is dated to the early 17th century, this knot is quite typical of Elizabethan design. Similar motifs were used as far back as the 1540’s when the then-princess Elizabeth made a gift to her stepmother Katherine Parr of The Miroir or Glasse of the Synneful Soul, a translation from French with an embroidered binding. This sort of design also shows up in many gardening books of the period (See the first chapter of Beck, Gardens, pp. 6-35, on Elizabethan Gardens).

Although none of the surviving examples of queen stitch can be firmly dated to the 16th century, there is an interesting written reference to the stitch in 1592 (quoted in Epstein, p. 73):

Pan: Not for want of matter, but to knowe the meaning, what is wrought in this sampler?
Syb: The follies of the Gods, who became beasts, for their affections.
Pan: What in this?
Isab: The honour of Virgins, who became Goddesses, for their Chastity.
Pan: But what be these?
Syb: Mens tongues, wrought all with double stitch, but not one true.
Pan: What these?
Isab: Roses, egletine, harts-ease, wrought with Queenes stitch, and all right.

I did some experiments making queen stitch with the buttonhole silk I had used on the front to do the acorns and rose, and found that it didn’t work well at all. But I had been playing around with separating the plies of thread for another project, and rather than ordering another spool in a finer size to do the outlining I decided to try using the single ply for the double running stitch outline of the pattern. It turned out to be fairly easy to separate. I tried doing queen stitch with a group of separated strands and it worked quite well. The original tightly twisted thread was too round to spread out sufficiently to cover the area of the stitch, but when untwisted, it did this quite nicely.

The plaited braid stitch on the front had not turned out very well, so I really didn’t want to do more, so I began looking to see if there were other viable options. There must have been some tricks to doing the stitch because it seems that most people today find it fairly difficult to do, while the Elizabethans seem to have turned out miles of the stuff. Apparently someone has recently worked out a different way of doing the stitch which he feels is much easier than the standard, however to get instructions meant spending $14 to get two issues of a magazine that was otherwise of no interest to me. While considerng the options I had, I recalled that the Jane Bostocke sampler (dated 1598) has a knot design that is filled in with pearls and black glass beads (Browne and Wearden, p 29, plate 3). I decided that this would a simple and effective way of completing the design.

Finishing work:
The bag is lined with a scrap of red silk that is reasonably close in color to the red thread used.

The seams on the original bags are finished. The best picture I have (described as a book bag but identical in size and style to the sweet bags, at the British Library) shows a seam finish that is clearly a metal thread, and looks as though it is more plaited braid stitch. There are a number of other bags with a metal thread seam finish, and my initial assumption was that they were all finished in plaited braid stitch. However, further study showed that there were several that could not have been done that way: the upper edge of the Met bag looks as though it is finished with a multicolored braid, similar to its drawstrings. A bag at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts has a seam finish that is narrower but in the same pink color as the drawstrings. I finished my own seams with a “brode lace of v bowes” from about 1475, which somewhat resembles a line of plaited braid stitch, made in the fingerloop braid technique, following directions in Swales and Williams (p.26).

The drawstrings on surviving bags are made in a variety of colors and styles, and also appear to be fingerloop braids. Not having much experience in making these braids, I chose the simplest 5-loop multi-colored braid I had directions for, a “purstringe” from an English manuscript dated to about 1600 (Swales and Williams, p. 27), and made it using more of the silk buttonhole thread.

These bags typically have three tassels or tassel-like items along the bottom edge, but not attached directly to the bag. I have no information at all about their construction, although I suspect they be coiled metal, but a loop of wire wrapped in the gold silk thread approximates their appearance reasonably well.

The Burrell collection bag was much of my original inspiration for this bag, and as it has tassels along the bottom edge, this is what I originally planned to do. However, as I started looking more closely at other surviving bags, I realized that tassels were in fact very rare. I was undecided about what to do until I found the British Library book-bag mentioned above, which is finished with what seem to be little acorns. This seemed an appropriate finish for a bag that was already embroidered with acorns. They are made in detached buttonhole stitch worked over a base of wire.

The original drawstring pulls were made over a wood core, so I used a large oval wood bead, wrapped it in linen thread, which was then used as the basis for brick stitch and detached buttonhole stitch embroidery.


[return to home page] [return to embroidery page] [return to Mathilde's Gallery]