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A tapestry purse

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Detail of a purse, T.8-1961 © Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge
Detail of a purse, T.8-1961 © Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge

Woven with a high percentage of silk thread and an even higher silver thread content, this bag measures 12.5 x 10.5 cm (5 x 4 ¾ inches). It is made up from a single strip of tapestry, sewn together along its selvedge for strength. The finished edge, woven in deep pink weft thread of differing lengths, was used as a decorative finish to the bag’s opening.

Tapestry detail
Detail of purse showing a bird

The warp threads thus remained vertical, adding strength to a relatively frail object. Eighteen different colours of thread were used to make this purse. It would have been woven on a very small loom.

The same design was used on both sides apart from one element - the squirrel on its haunches is depicted slightly differently on each side. The pattern is regular; at the bottom the squirrel sits between two trailing sprays of honeysuckle; slightly higher, almost a second row, are two five-petalled flowers and two much smaller blossoms; above that two winged birds, perched above toadstools, stand guard over three unevenly sized flower heads placed between them.

Tapestry detail
Detail of purse showing a squirrel
Tapestry detail
Detail of purse showing a bird

The top row consists of four flower heads worked in alternating colours and separated into two groups by a spray of acorns, possibly symbolising and acknowledging the accumulation of wealth.

Tapestry detail
A woven strip threaded through the top suggests it may have hung from a clasp on a belt.
Tapestry detail
Its tassels were matched by two others at the bottom, attached to the loops remaining at the lower corners.
Purse detail (tassel) © Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge
Purse detail (tassel) © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Small purses and fashion accessories like gloves from this time often followed the same sources for their patterns and designs, whether they were woven or embroidered. Tapestry-woven fashion accessories such as this purse are very rare survivals. Embroidered purses or sweet bags (to hold sweet-smelling herbs) are the more common survivals.

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