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Sweet Bags: Sarcenet, Sylke, and Odorous Flowers

Discover the history and many uses of these elaborately embroidered purses.

Susan J. Jerome Aug 16, 2021 - 14 min read

Sweet Bags: Sarcenet, Sylke, and Odorous Flowers Primary Image

This vintage-style sweet bag by Susan J. Jerome is perfect for storing your buttons and sewing notions. Photo: Matt Graves

To mark the New Year in 1565, William Huggans, Keeper of the Gardens at Hampton Court, gave “twelve sweete bags of taphata enbrauderid with flowers of Venice golde and silver” to Queen Elizabeth I as part of the festive celebrations. The Queen also received “two swete bags of sylke” from Lady Ratclyf, indicating that such gifts might be received by royalty from those with titles and those without titles alike.

Royal records allow us to learn even more about the annual gifts that William Huggans (1524–1588), who was Keeper of the Gardens beginning in 1561, made to Elizabeth I (1533–1603). Huggans is listed as having given “a large sweet bag very fair embroidered with a queen having the sun in her hand, the beams spreading abroad” sometime in the 1580s. After his passing in 1588, a “Mrs. Huggens” continued the tradition by including “24 sweet bags, of sarcenet of sundry colors” in her gifts to the queen.

These and many more details can be gleaned from an 1823 multivolume publication entitled The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth. This collection of various original sources and meticulous records of royal gifts and household details provides valuable context to the sweet bags that did—and did not—make their way into museum collections.

Often, a bag’s description included size, fabrics, and decorations. Listings of the gifts given annually to the monarch to celebrate the new year include many of these sweet bags described as “satin embroidered with Venice gold, silver and silk containing sweet bags in them garnished with pearls and garnets” and “six small sweet bags of changeable taffeta.” Sweet bags were also made or purchased; the Wardrobe Warrant for April 10, 1579, lists, “Item for two yards of changeable double sarcenet to make us sweet bags [for] our great wardrobe.”

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All of these descriptions reveal that the use of sweet bags was widespread in the court of Elizabeth I, but evidence of these small textiles in written records extends beyond Queen Elizabeth’s reign. The inventory of Charles I from 1649 to 1651 includes two sweet bags of white satin embroidered with precious metal threads. And as late as 1838, the Portland Transcript (Maine) included a short advertisement: “Perfumed Sweet Bag—this is a delightful little article for a lady’s toilette, or a gentleman’s wardrobe . . .” Manufactured by W. W. Lincoln, the decorated bag included a poem on “odorous flowers.”

The sweet bag, which could be humble or magnificent, played an important part in daily life for people of all classes in England and beyond for several centuries.

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Elaborately embroidered purses known as sweet bags were used to carry scented herbs or essences to cover unpleasant odors. British. Made from silk, gold, silver, and linen in the last quarter of the sixteenth century. (1986.300.1). Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Searching for Sweet Bags

The small drawstring bag that led me to this inquiry about sweet bags is now part of the Bainbridge Collection at the University of Rhode Island Historic Textile and Costume Collection. The bag was identified by Mabel Foster Bainbridge (see “Mabel Foster Bainbridge’s Legacy of Lace” by Susan J. Jerome, PieceWork July/August 2005) as most likely originating from Italy. She also dated the bag to the early-eighteenth century. It’s the only one of its kind in the collection and worth a closer look. As the collections manager, I began my research relying on resources written in English; additional historical context can, no doubt, be located with a wider search.

Drawstring bags were used for a variety of reasons before pockets became a staple construction detail in people’s clothing. Small bags such as this could hold a handkerchief or gloves—accessories that were frequently perfumed and stored in “sweet bags.” I do not know for sure if the object in our collection was originally a sweet bag, but the shape and size suggest that it could have been used to keep small bags of herbs and perfumed items near at hand.

Today, we might call such small bags pomanders or sachets. Our twenty-first-century existence includes many products that dispel or disguise the ugly odors that were once an inseparable part of living. Sweet bags helped to conceal the smells that could not be avoided. Sometimes the bags were filled with dried herbs and flowers and sniffed at when needed, or the herbs might be kept on one’s person to mask body odors. Larger bags were used to sweeten stored clothing and keep destructive insects away.

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An illustration from Peter Quentel’s Eyn new kunstlichboich. First published in 1527, the volume contained 46 pages of designs. The English translation was entitled A Neawe Treatise as Concerning the Excellency of the Needleworke, Spannishe stitches and Weaving in the Frame. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

How Were They Made?

A variety of fabrics were used to create the bags that still exist in collections today, including silk taffeta (or taphata), which is woven using tightly spun silk warp and weft yarns to produce a crisp yet lightweight fabric. Sarcenet, too, was made from silk, and could be plain weave or a twill weave. Linen also was commonly used; it’s a sturdy fabric that could be heavily embroidered with thick or metalized threads.

Professional embroiderers decorated the bags with a wealth of different needlework techniques to be purchased by the prosperous. Or the bags could be made at home for use there or given as gifts. Vanda Foster, in Bags and Purses, cites the account of the Earl of Bedford, who in the 1680s had his housekeeper both purchasing ready-made sweet bags and making them for household use.

One characteristic that stands out about the sweet bags found in museum collections is their decoration. The embroidery on the outside had significance, identifying the wealth of the owner and possibly revealing messages in the design. Note that William Huggans gave Queen Elizabeth a bag embroidered with a “queen having the sun in her hand.” Printed sources allowed the amateur needlewoman to produce work of high quality. A book of embroidery patterns, originally published by Peter Quentel in Cologne in 1527, was translated into English by 1530 as A Neawe Treatise as Concerning the Excellency of the Needleworke, Spannishe stitches and Weaving in the Frame.

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According to Rozsika Parker in The Subversive Stitch, these pattern books were marketed to women of the emerging merchant class. They represented embroidery as an endeavor combining the appearance of nobility with activities relevant to the new middle class; a woman had to embroider her own sweet bag, but she could make it look like those stitched by professionals and purchased by her betters.

The middle-class woman may not have had pearls and garnets with which to decorate her bag, but silk floss and wool threads were available to most. Along with linen, these relatively inexpensive materials were easily obtainable for those interested in creating decorative accessories, such as sweet bags.

The Bainbridge Sweet Bag: A Closer Look

The bag at the University of Rhode Island is embroidered with a simple design of flowers: a center medallion and leaves. The lining is a salmon-colored plain-weave fabric. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has several small, seventeenth- or possibly eighteenth-century drawstring bags made in France with similar salmon-colored linings. A small fragment of fabric appears to be stitched between the outer silk and inner cotton layers. Is this the original lining? Without taking the bag apart, there is no answer to this question. The bag may have been reworked at some point. I also note that the braid trim covers up parts of the embroidery. The embroidery is not the same on each side, and the lining is very clean with no hint of what was put inside. The bag doesn’t reveal anything about its original use.

The embroidery includes core-wrapped metallic thread. Often, this is linen thread wrapped in very fine strips of silver. When looking at the Bainbridge bag through a microscope, the core appears to be yellow silk wrapped with silver that has darkened with age. This thread would have been an expensive choice. The silver-wrapped threads were applied with a couching stitch, meaning they were laid on the fabric’s surface and sewn in place. The other stitches—all sewn with silk floss—include satin stitch, long and short stitch, and backstitch.

The base of the bag is a lightweight, plain-weave silk. Two lengths of a flat braid are sewn along the sides and bottom with a single strip of braid stitched around the top edge. The silk ribbon drawstrings run through a casing that is sewn along the top of the lining. The drawn pattern appears beneath the deteriorated embroidery; some of the embroidery floss has disappeared. The simple stitching and design suggest it is not a bag sewn by a professional but one made by a young woman learning the craft of needlework. Perhaps it was made as a gift.

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This elaborately embroidered purse is probably representative of the sweet bags recorded in a number of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century inventories. The bag (29.23.18) is British in origin and dates to the early-seventeenth century. Canvas embroidered with silk and silver thread, 4 × 4 inches (10.2 × 10.2 cm). Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

A Potpourri of Meaning?

Gardens today differ from those of the past. Even for the wealthiest families, gardens were a welcome necessity. Plants supplied basic food and some were harvested for dyeing fabric, while herbs added flavor to cooking and provided medicinal cures. Flowers attracted bees for making honey. Plants also had symbolic importance; they were given as a token of affection or remembrance. A sweet bag could incorporate several messages in the embroidery and by the inclusion of certain flowers and herbs.

Certainly, for women in the sixteenth and into the twentieth centuries, embroidery combined the qualities desirable in a wife and mother. Parker further observed, “Embroidery combined the humility of needlework with rich stitchery. It connoted opulence and obedience. It ensured that women spent long hours at home, retired in private, yet it made a public statement about the household’s position and economic standing.”

Resources

  • Carey, Jacqui. Elizabethan Stitches: A Guide to Historic English Needlework. Ottery St. Mary [Devon]: Carey Company, 2012. Author’s note: Jacqui Carey wrote a book on sweet bags, which I have yet to locate in an accessible institution.
  • Foster, Vanda. Bags and Purses. The Costume Accessories Series. London: B. T. Batsford, 1982.
  • “New Year’s Gifts for Queen Elizabeth,” Linkspages at Larsdatter, larsdatter.com/gifts/index.htm
  • Nichols, John. The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth: Among Which Are Interspersed Other Solemnities, Public Expenditures, and Remarkable Events During the Reign of That Illustrious Princess. London: Printed by and for J. Nichols and son, 1823.
  • Parker, Rozsika. The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine. New York: Routledge, 1989.
  • Portland Transcript, November 10, 1838. Vol. 2, issue 31, p. 246.

Susan J. Jerome is collections manager at the University of Rhode Island Historic Textile and Costume Collection. She earned her MS degree from the University of Rhode Island, Department of Textiles, Fashion Merchandising, and Design, focusing on textile and clothing history. Prior to continuing her education, she worked for a number of years at Mystic Seaport Museum. Ms. Jerome works as a textile conservator and consultant to museums and historical societies. She thanks those who help put accurate information on the internet for research purposes, including those who provide the Elizabethan records at larsdatter.com.

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