Back in the 17th century, the purse (known as a miser’s bag) was a very male accessory. But by the time the beaded bag appeared in the late 18th century, the purse had become a very feminine domain, writes Julie Carter.
When the beaded bag first appeared in the 17th century in the form of a small coin-carrying purse, the price could be as much as $5. By the end of the 19th century it wasn’t unusual for a quality bag to be priced at $100, an enormous sum at that time, and to put it in perspective, the equivalent would have fed a family of four for several months.
The early bags were made using extremely small, fine seed beads that required around 1000 beads to cover per square inch. They were made by glass blowers, who first of all took a gather (or blob) of molten glass onto a blowpipe. After settling it against a slab of marble – called marvering – the glass was blown into a bubble; an assistant then attached another gather onto the bubble and both men moved quickly away from each other, stretching the glass so that it formed a long, thin tube (which could be more than one hundred feet long). The original bubble became the hole in the centre of the tube. Once it was cooled, the tube was broken into canes and then cut into tiny beads known as seed beads. Most of the beads used in beaded bag-making are seed beads, although some later examples used cut or faceted types.
Early beaded bags tend to fit a general design scheme of three defined horizontal layers knitted into the bag. Unless the bottom of the bag was square – in which case it would be fringed – the base usually featured a central tassel. The middle section – which was the largest – displayed the illustrated scene, with the top section being designed in a complementary design. The bags closed either with a clasp – when fitted onto a frame – or a drawstring.
The making of the purse
Beaded bags were made in two main ways: they were either knitted (or crocheted), or they were created on a loom. Master knitters were employed to create the knitted bags. They used a single linen thread, and followed a pattern. Up to one third of the beads for the purse would be threaded in one sitting, before the master knitter knitted between them. The problem with this technique was that any error would not be evident until the bag was almost complete. It also required constant tension, otherwise the bag would turn or twist and fail to lay flat. The loom bags (all steel beaded bags were created on a loom) were threaded whilst on the loom, one row at a time.
The method of manufacture can be very important if a bag develops a hole. If it was knitted, it can be repaired by carefully drawing the hole closed if there are not too many beads missing – although there will probably be a little gathered-up area. If the bag was created on a loom, however, it’s much more difficult to repair. Because the threads have passed through the beads from both directions, the rows may separate even further if you try to reattach the damaged row to a neighbouring one that appears stable. Separation of rows is often an indication of dry rot in the thread. As a general rule, never buy a beaded bag with more than two holes in it; it indicates more on the way.
Recognising an early bag
There are some general characteristics to beaded bags made from the late 18th to early 19th centuries that can help determine age. For example, they are generally no longer than 18cm to 20cm (not including the fringe), and the header is usually made of silk, with silk ribbons or laces being threaded through to tie on either side.
Frames were more common after the 1820s. Silver, steel, pinchbeck and gilded metal were all used, usually closing with a hook catch and opening by pressing down on a plunger-like button; the interlocking twist system was developed much later. The more elaborate frames date from the mid-18th century.
The earlier bags are straight-sided, with either a semi-circular or squared-off shape to the bottom. They usually have satin or silk linings (although other materials were used), and the sizes of the beads used are tiny.
Making a scene
The early bags tended towards scenes from the home, and included flowers, roses and vines, sometimes featuring a village mural to the bottom section. Designing and producing an intricate scene on something as small as a beaded bag was a feat in itself, and it’s in recognition of the skill involved that some of these examples are now the most sought after.
It’s likely that the popularity of the scenic bag in the 19th century was linked to the tradition of the Grand Tour, when the newly-affluent middle classes thought nothing of embarking upon a trip for twelve months or more, returning with trunks laden with souvenirs that included beaded bags whose scenes recorded their travels.
In the early twentieth century it became very popular to produce the monochromatic bag (one colour). This was partly because the designs for the patterned bags were so complicated that the amateur beadworker was unable to follow them. More simple floral patterns were also introduced at this time, but because they are often stylised it can be difficult to identify the actual flower.
Preventing Glass Disease
Never use glue on a beaded bag. Not only will it destroy the fibres, it can also lead to glass disease on the beads. When glue is applied to suede or leather, for example, the elements of the glue and the fibre combine, eventually becoming toxic to the glass. The result is a pebbled or disrupted surface, and it’s not fixable.
Beaded bag upon the wall, which is the fairest bag of all…
Bags in perfect condition are the most valuable, although a good quality example with minor repair problems will still bring a good price. Bags showing deterioration will always sell for less. Very fine Venetian seed beads knitted in intricate patterns will almost always sell for more than bags made using larger seed beads. A cut steel beaded bag in a multicoloured design will have a far higher value than a bag in comparable condition, but created using cut-steel beads in silver and gold (which are more common).
And it’s not just the beads that are in demand; bag frames are also very popular, especially the more ornate and unique examples. Gold and silver frames will be worth more than brass, and in very rare cases you might find a frame of precious metal set with genuine gemstones (usually, though, the stones are fake).