You are forgiven if you haven’t heard of these delicious little ‘sweete bags’ before – and no I haven’t got carried away with too many letter ‘e’s . These very decorative and extremely collectable objects originally date from Tudor times and I have been lucky enough to hold and examine Elizabethan examples. It was whilst visiting Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, I was allowed into the vaults of the De Witt Wallace Museum, which hold sweete bags and folded hussifs amongst other treasures. How on earth did I return them to their rightful owner – I was surprised I was not frisked on the way out!
Closer to home, the V&A museum has a good collection of Sweete (sometimes ‘Sweet’ or ‘Swete’) bags. According to their catalogue, “Many decorative early 17th century bags survive, but it is not entirely certain how they were used and worn. They are too delicate and elaborate to serve as receptacles for money carried on one’s person on a daily basis. Few commercial exchanges in the early 17th century required cash, and most household shopping was done by servants. These embroidered bags may also be the ‘sweet bags’ frequently listed in inventories and offered as gifts. These held perfumed powder or dried flowers and herbs and were perhaps applied to the nose like a pomander when necessary.”
It is known that Queen Elizabeth I was given many such purses with gold coins or other gifts inside, always elaborately decorated with stitching, gold threads and beads. Sometimes the bag would hold a matching book of prayer or similar. Antique examples of these beautiful bags are very collectable indeed and fetch considerable amounts at auction.
There’s something irresistible about the scale of these bags. I have designed a number of recreations over the past few years. (Two of these are still available from the Cross Stitch Guild.) For my Finder of Treasures collection, I have gone a step further, not only designing the bag but also commissioning book-binder extraordinaire Kate Bowles to make a tiny book to fit inside. I hope you will feel inspired to try making it for yourself.