In this world of mass production I love handmade things. They tell the story of their creation and continue the skills and traditions valued by the people who made them. I have a collection of handmade bags and purses from the past and the present. They are examples of textile crafts that require time and effort to produce and reveal the various ways different cultures embellish utilitarian objects.
Some of my little bags came from ancestors and old family friends. They were produced in the early part of the 20th century when ordinary women had more time to make their own clothes and accessories and they learnt various crafts that are now usually practiced by artisans and keen hobbyists. Other more recent bags and purses in my collection are examples of the textile crafts of other countries that are still being created in villages and towns today.
The black beaded evening bag and two rectangular purses were made in the 1920s and 30s by an old family friend. She must have spent hours sewing or weaving the tiny beads into art deco style designs that were fixed to the fabric backing. Women’s eveningwear would have been an added expense in those days, especially around the time of the Great Depression and many women made their own party clothes and accessories. They probably got ideas from overseas fashion magazines. When I look at these I can hear the sound of jazz bands and the clinking of martini glasses and see couples dancing in their finery. Such objects remind us that the owners were once young and enjoyed going out to parties and other celebrations.
I also have a small vintage 60s beaded crotchet purse from Japan. This type of Japanese beadwork was popular in the 50s and 60s for bags and purses. You can find lots of examples for sale on the web. It seems to have been a common Japanese style of beading and purse shape. These tiny purses were widely produced and are still being made today. I like its miniature size and design. It must take a lot of patience to do such fine, fiddly work and to fit on the small beads while working with a crotchet hook.
Beaded bags are still admired in the 21st century and new ones are readily available. I have a grey beaded evening bag made in china and a small red beaded purse from India, where handicrafts are still common and are created for a wider market. There are also many obsessed independent crafts people who create their own beaded purses for sale online. It is good that this time-consuming craft has not disappeared. There is something magical about the way light catches on the surface of the beads. It is like miniature mosaic.
Another popular craft of the past and present is needlepoint. I have had a go at this with cushion and picture kits and it is a slow and relaxing pastime. Before these kits became commonplace women would use unmarked canvas to create their own designs or could purchase graph style patterns to copy. Of the two bags that I possess one is a combination of petit point and standard needlepoint and the other consists entirely of petit point. An ancestor created the former in the 1930s and the latter is an example of Austrian petit point, possibly from the 1950s. One can only imagine the eyestrain caused in stitching such fine needlework, especially before the availability of magnifiers with lights. Austrian bags like this are still made today but are extremely expensive because they are so detailed and slow to produce. Anyone who does this painstaking work deserves to be paid well. Luckily there are still plenty of vintage bags available for a reasonable price for those of us with limited means. I sometimes wonder where the owners took these bags; from the theatre in the 30s to concerts in Vienna in the 50s, it seems a world away from our modern life today.
Other types of embroidery were applied by hand to mid-century bags. The stylish 1950s black silk clutch in my collection has very fine couching embroidery on the top flap. Nowadays a soulless machine would be employed do this type of detailed embroidery. This purse reminds me of Audrey Hepburn’s elegant style in a Breakfast At Tiffany’s.
Buying craft items made in another culture helps to keep the local textile traditions alive. I have three bags from Guatemala that demonstrate examples of different textile crafts. From woven fabric and rich embroidery to crotchet, these decorative bags represent the work of individual Guatemalan women. An ordinary bag is turned into a joyous expression of their creativity. I love their use of color and texture and when I carry these bags, they make me feel happy.
A small handmade cosmetic purse that I use all the time comes from Uzbekistan in central Asia. It is an example of Iroqui cross stitch, a traditional craft of the Uzbek tribe which uses silk thread. Equally colorful yet so different from the Guatemalan textiles, this purse belongs to the stylized aesthetic you associate with the central Asian communities along the legendary Silk Road.
At a time when computer technology is giving humans less to do manually in the workplace, it is good that there are still some things where a machine does not produce the best result. Automated textiles just don’t have the same character as those created by hand. It is the imperfections that make them unique and visually pleasing. No wonder so many people are rediscovering old crafts for their own pleasure or to sell on-line.
My small collection of handmade bags and purses display craft traditions from several continents that span nearly a century. It is wonderful to see the varied methods that have been employed in their creation and decoration. I really admire the patience and ability of the makers of these objects. They have transformed what is just a receptacle for carrying around ones possessions into expressions of their creativity and concepts of beauty.