Early Modern Sweet Bags: Objects of Delight
by Sarah Randles
The National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne is home to a small drawstring purse, dating from around the end of the sixteenth century, beautifully embroidered in coloured silks and gold thread, depicting a design of roses on a coiling vine. The Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester holds a similar little bag, embroidered with sprigs of sprigs of roses, carnations, marigolds and pea pods. The Manchester Art Gallery’s Costume Collection at Platt Hall has four more examples: one with a similar design of coiling vines and flowers; one featuring flowers in a lattice pattern; one embroidered with gold and silver thread in heart shapes on red satin, with an attached pincushion and knife sheath; and one featuring flowers and biblical designs.
These highly decorated drawstring purses are examples of luxury items known as sweet bags, many more of which exist in public and private collections. They generally date from the latter half of the sixteenth century and the first half of the seventeenth century, and appear to be a distinctively English object. They are typically small, square or nearly-square bags, closing with a drawstring, and embroidered on both sides in coloured silks and metallic threads, often in a floral design. Tassels frequently decorate their corners and bottom edges, and many feature a long braided loop in addition to a drawstring, suggesting that they were designed to have been worn hanging from a belt or girdle. Many of the bags have two small loops covered in metal thread at the top corners, presumably to facilitate opening the bag once it has been closed with the drawstring.
Nothing is known of the original makers or owners of the Melbourne or Manchester sweet bags, and none of them can be identified as corresponding to any contemporary documentary descriptions. It is likely that sweet bags were made both professionally and domestically, and that individual bags may have been made as collaborations between domestic and professional makers. Elite women were well trained in embroidery in the early modern period, and there is considerable evidence that they made embroideries with personal, emotional and sometimes political significance. The term ‘sweet bag’ was originally used to mean a bag or sachet containing sweet-smelling herbs and powders which were stored among household linens and clothing to perfume them. Many sweet bags of this type appear in the wardrobe accounts of Henry VIII, sometimes made from expensive fabrics, but in other cases of more utilitarian stuff. But it seems that these sweet bags are not the same as the highly decorated items discussed here. There is nothing to suggest that the sweet bags in the Melbourne and Manchester collections were ever used to store sweet smelling substances and the drawstring closure might not have been ideal for such a purpose. Some extant examples still contain contemporary small books and coins, and the pincushions attached to some suggest that they had a utilitarian purpose. The word ‘sweet’ had a broader meaning in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, and could refer to things which appealed to a wider range of senses, including taste or sight as well as smell. In the context of the sweet bags, it might mean ‘fair’ or ‘pretty’, although the common motif of flowers, featured on many of the bags, continues to evoke the sense of smell. The sweet bags were likely valued for their aesthetic properties as objects designed to delight the senses. Sweet bags could also be economically valuable items. In the records of a court case in 1617 a sweet bag belonging to Sir Henry Lee, ‘wrought with gould and pearle’ was estimated as worth one hundred marks. The combination of economic and aesthetic value meant that sweet bags were frequently given as presents, particularly in a ritual context. The lists of gifts received by Queen Elizabeth I at New Year between 1561 and 1600 include 86 sweet bags. Many are described as elaborately embroidered and feature gold, pearls and expensive fabrics. Although sweet bags could be used as containers for various other small possessions, including coins, in these instances they are given as gifts in their own right. Sweet bags have emotional value as ‘objects of desire’ in a way that highlights the interaction between emotions and aesthetics. Gifts of sweet bags might represent genuine personal affection, but when given as royal presentation they have a different emotional burden, reflective of the unequal power relationships between the giver and recipient. Such ritual gifts carry with them expectations of reciprocity; the presentation of a sweet bag might embody hopes for royal preferment or expectations of rewards for loyalty. Where bags were made personally by the donor, the act of making represented significant emotional as well as physical labour, and the amount of time required to make these small, precious objects could amount to hundreds of hours.
The emotional benefits of such making could, however, accrue to the maker as well as to the recipient. Woven into the strings of one of the sweet bags in the Platt Hall collection is the text: 'P(AT)IENCE (BR)INGS THE MINDE TO REST AND HELPES ALL TROUBLES TO DISGEST'. The act of making could itself be an emotional practice. Further Reading Jacqui Carey, Sweet Bags: An Investigation into 16th and 17th Century Needlework (Ottery St Mary: Carey Company, 2009).
Robyn Healy, Fashion and Textiles in the International Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, 2003).
Exquisite Threads: English embroidery1600s-1900s (Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2015) Sarah Randles, '"The Pattern of All Patience”: Gender, Agency and Emotions in Embroidery and Pattern Books in Early Modern England’, in Susan Broomhall, ed., Authority, Gender and Emotions in Late Medieval and Early Modern England (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave 2015) pp. 150–167.