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16th Century Knitted Bag


This article is based on some research I did in 2008, to recreate an Elizabethan knitted bag. There are a number of these listed in Queen Elizabeth's New Year's Gifts lists for 1561-1562, (you can see this list at this site here), but none survive. I wanted to see if I could come up with a plausible theory for what these might be like.

Colour Choice

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In the year 1561-1562, a total of 28 knitted bags (all containing various sums of money) were gifted to Queen Elizabeth. Of these, some were knit in one colour, but the majority were made of two colours: one ordinary colour, and one metallic (either gold or silver).

Of the bags listed that were made using two colours, the most common colour combinations were black with either silver or gold, and red or crimson with gold.


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Fine knitting of this period was universally done in silk , and any metallic threads were the real, actual metals. Here I am defining fine knitting as knitting using up to 30 stitches to the inch, usually found in hand-knit stockings, ladies' or ecclesiastical gloves, and shirts (to see examples of these go to this site or this site). Based on the descriptions of the materials of the bags in the gift list (universally silk and gold or silver), as well as extant embroidered examples of purses and sweet bags for/of the upper classes for the same period, the purses or bags gifted to Queen Elizabeth would also have fallen into this category.


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Single Colour Bags

I suspect that those bags made of a single colour probably had a textural pattern as this is a technique sometimes used in other extant examples of fine knitting that I have come across (such as can be found on this shirt or the cuffs of these silk and metal gloves), or as in Eleonora of Toledo's stockings.

There is one 17th century oval knitted purse, knitted in orange and silver silk, that uses a combination of simple geometric patterns alternating with a diamond-shaped eyelet pattern in linear formation (a picture of this is in 17th Century Knitting Patterns as adapted for Plimoth Plantation, 2nd edition, which references Sylvia Grover's book History of Needlework Tools and Accessories as the source).

A second bag, of Italian origin and dated to about 1620, also survives (it can be viewed here). This is knit in quite a different shape, in white silk and gold thread. In the upper half of the bag, the white and gold are worked separately, with just thin bands of gold spaced evenly throughout, and a narrow gold border around the opening. The entire top half of the item is covered in eyeleting, worked in a straightforward zigzag pattern. The base of the bag, however, is worked in an extremely complex geometric design, with both gold and white threads showing, which suggests that the threads have been passed through on the inside of the bag to help create the pattern. It is such a fine pattern that it looks very similar to reticella work.

Given these two examples, I therefore think it is also probable that patterning through deliberately dropping or passing over stitches was used, when working with a single colour and also when working with a colour and a metal, as the two later surviving examples are.

Finally, based on everything else that has survived from Elizabethan times, I just don't think Queen Elizabeth was the sort of woman that got given a nice, plain knitted silk purse for New Year's.

Bi-Colour Bags

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As mentioned above, the two surviving early 17th century bags are made in two colours; one silk thread and one metal. Although this is a removal of two or three generations, I do not think it entirely implausible that bags knitted 50-60 years earlier may also have employed these same techniques (eyelets, dropped or passed over stitches) to create patterned effects. However, at the time of my original research, I had not come across either example, and so I focused on other sources for my patterning hypotheses.

The fact that all the bi-coloured knitted purses Elizabeth received made some combination of an ordinary colour in silk, and a metal (either gold or silver) struck me as being almost heraldic. The one exception to this is a bag gifted by the Archdeacon Carew (this is about 3/4 of the way down the list, which can still be found here). This bag was of "yallow silk and silver knytt" - but everyone has their Jerusalem.

Having been struck with this idea, it was then time to go and look for surviving examples of fine patterned knitting, either contemporary with, preceding, or postdating this period.

Some of the first items I came across were the Sion Relic Purses, through this site, which are 14th century Swiss examples of bags knitted in the round. I was interested in the linear/striped designs, and the use of repeating motifs - checkerboards, various small flowers, and leaves - and multiple colours. The bag that particularly interested me however, was the bag that makes use of a device or shield, tiled to create repeating stripes. It interested me firstly because it supported my thought that there may have been some sort of heraldic design component to the Elizabethan knitted bags, secondly because I liked that even at this small level, the motif of the bird is quite clear, and thirdly because every alternate row consists of a sort of "negative" version of the pattern, with only a thin stripe of the normal colouring visible.

From Sion to Gunnister. My recent discovery of this purse (which undoubtedly is not news to many other people), along with the other two 17th century examples mentioned earlier, has made me rethink some of my previous thoughts on patterning of knitted bags (also potentially materials - the Gunnister bag is made of wool, so it seems entirely possible that while well-bred noblewomen were knitting delicate wee baggies out of silk and gold, your average woman may have knitted her own version of wool). I am now leaning more towards the idea that the bags were knitted using relatively simple motifs, potentially in a strictly linear layout. However, these thoughts are new as of March 2010, and need some time to fully ferment. Expect more on this later - in the mean time, I shall continue with expounding my previous theories, as there is no reason why they cannot coexist with one another quite happily.

In addition to knitted purses, I also spent quite a lot of time considering embroidered purses, some of which I had studied earlier for another project. For these, I was looking at design elements such as size and shape of bags, as well as looking at the range of motifs used and layout of these in the overall bag design. However, I will discuss these in much greater detail at some later point when I add a page with my research for an embroidered bag that I have made, and will update this accordingly then.

I also looked at the surviving royal burse of Elizabeth I, which can be found here, and considered whether something like this may have been knitted. I think it is possible, but when it came to my own project I decided that it was a little too fiddly to be going on with.

Based on the Sion relic bags, the Gunnister bag, and the surviving embroidered bags that I looked at, I think it likely that knitted bags given to Elizabeth had a drawcord running around the top, finished on either side with tassles, as well as a hanging cord, and tassles along the bottom. Also as these surviving examples are lined, I suspect that knitted bags of the 1560s would also have been lined, especially as this would add strength to the knitting and prevent it from being stretched out of shape by the wait of the coins in them. I also suspect that they are of comparable size to these bags, however, I would like to confirm this by studying period coinages and figuring out whether the amounts that were gifted in these bags would fit into a bag of about this size (around 15-20cm or 6-8 inches, square or oblong).

There is one very exciting extant Spanish knitted cushion or pillowcover available, which I include here, I am not sure where I got this from originally but if anyone knows please tell me so I can reference it correctly. This was very interesting to me, as for me, the design of the motifs (a standing lion, a splayed bird, and a fleur de lis) looks heraldic.

Other extant knit items that I looked at to develop my ideas on design and motifs that may have been used included ecclesiastical gloves, of which there are several sets surviving. These include two sets almost identical (here and here). These both feature sun motifs (which I assume have some symbolic church-y meaning), that look a lot like a modern quilter's mariner's compass design, one set made with wavy rays and the other with straight. There is also a set in the V&A, which are patterned all over, and feature a heart and a cross motif, as well as stripes along the fingers and a variety of geometric designs.

Finally, I also looked at extant knit stockings of the mid-late 16th century, and early 17th century. Some stockings featured only small areas of design. This one, for example, only has a small leafy pattern at the ankle, and a very simple decoration of diagonally set outlined squares travelling up the calf. This set featured a rather larger pattern knit around the ankle, and while they do not fit with my heraldic theory, they do display a use of bold motifs in contrasting colour.

To me, the most exciting finds were two pairs of knit stockings each featuring fleur de lis. The one here is German, of the late 16th or early 17th century. The pattern is an all-over one, with the fleur de lis offset on the diagonal and bordered all around, with a broad banded pattern around the top of the stockings. The other set, here are probably early 17th century, but of Italian origin. Again, the pattern is all-over, with the fleur de lis offset diagonally, but whereas the first pattern featured a rather elaborate border, on this set the border of each motif is simple two straight parallel lines. Again, this set has a broad area of patterning around the top of the stockings. Both sets appear to have been knit in a diagonal striped pattern through the instep, and no doubt this will be of great interest to me when I move on to stockings. However, I was excited by these stockings because of their use of the fleur de lis motif, and the striking effect of the diagonally offset layout.

Gauge and Method

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The Sion and Gunnister purses, as well as the early 17th century purses, all appear to have been knitted in the round. All the other items I have referenced here, excluding the knitted jacket, have been knitted in the round. There are quite a few paintings that include a scene of a woman (usually the Madonna) knitting, in the round. Some of these can be found here. I think it probably that the knitted bags gifted to Elizabeth for New Year's would have been knitted in the round.

The gauge of the bags could have been anywhere from 15 to 30 stitches per inch, based on the examples mentioned above, although this is not something that I have spent a lot of time working on, as I am not a good enough knitter to vary gauge and therefore anything I am producing will be at "my" gauge.

What I did

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So what did I actually do?

My first decision was colourwise: I decided that I wanted to knit a bag using two colours. Based on my personal favourite colour, I settled on knitting a bag very much on the crimson side of red, with gold.

Next: Material choice. Obviously silk would be preferable for the "crimson", but what type of silk? I decided to do a series of test swatches, 20 stitches wide by 20 rows high, on 2mm needles. I used a variety of materials, aiming at about the equivalent of a 2ply wool. These included several silk embroidery threads (including the Madeira stranded silks), appleton's embroidery wool, and also both stranded and perle cotton and crochet yarn. Funnily enough, the most expensive Madeira silk (at $4 for 5 yards, which goes nowhere quickly), gave me the nicest result. I used up most of one pack in my sample square. This was not a viable option.

Having a slight whinge to Mistress Katherina Weyssin about how I couldn't find an appropriate thread that wasn't going to cost the earth, she came up with a very workable solution: She enjoys spinning, especially fine spinning, and had some silk that she could spin up. She was also keen to try some dyeing, and this would give her the opportunity to try out cochineal, which is a valid late period dye material. In exchange for enough spun yarn to make my knitted bag, all I had to do was embroider her a blackwork coif. A deal was struck, depending on the results of a test sample. The first thread she gave me was far too fine, being about the equivalent in weight of a single strand of embroidery yarn or sewing cotton. It knit up well on 1mm needles, but I had decided at this stage not to use these as it hurt my knuckles (at some point, however, I will try a bag on these). The second, however, worked very nicely. At this point it needed unpicking, so that we could work out how much I had used and therefore how much I would be likely to need. Sensible souls would have measured before knitting.

I would like here to take a moment to point out that this was mid-2008, and Katherina still hasn't settled on a coif pattern she likes, and so I am awaiting this before I can keep my end of the deal. ;-P

With the main thread achieved, I also had to find an appropriate metallic thread. Actual metal threads were not available, although Amalie of Southron Gaard has a source for silver which I will try at some point. So I tried a variety of metallic embroidery threads, of varying degrees of polyester. I also tried the Madeira gold silk, which had the most beautiful lustre but was very tightly spun, which pulled the knit sample out of square. In the end I settled on the DMC5 Metallic Pearl thread in colour #5282, but this is very much a compromise and I still continue to look for a more appropriate option for future projects.

Also now we have access to several sources of silk for weavers, which are much cheaper for a far greater volume of silk, and provide good colour ranges. I will probably try out some of these at some point to see how they knit up, as I cannot always have handspun silk for a project, and some projects will respond better to the consistency of commercially spun thread.

Here is a picture of two of my sample squares. The one on the left is the sample made up of the second trial spun silk that Katherina gave me. The one on the right is the Madeira silk. Notice that it is being held square by pins, and won't actually sit naturally like that.

My knit sample of the handspun silk gave me a stitch count of about 12-13 stitches/rows per inch. Knowing this, I was able to draft a pattern for a bag that would work up to be of similar size to the extant relic purses and sweetbags I had looked at. Unfortunately, as I am not very experienced in knitting in multiple colours, I forgot to allow for shrinkage due to the threads pulling slightly as they pass across the reverse side, so the bag is knitting up a little smaller than I had thought it would. Also, there is a slight difference in weight between the silk and the metallic thread, so the tensioning gets a wee bit funny sometimes, although it is more even now that I am knitting it up for the second time and am a more confident knitter and more familiar with both fibres.

Trying to decide on a pattern, I wanted to create something that would have been appropriate to Elizabeth, but that also reflected my French/English persona, as the bag would be for me. The Tudor rose is an obvious association for Elizabeth, so I selected this (or rather, a more generic rose) as one motif. The second motif I settled on was the fleur de lis, as it cropped up a lot in the samples I looked at, I liked it, it fit with the French side of my persona, and also with Elizabeth as she featured fleur de lis in her coat of arms. I had already decided that I wanted to offset the motifs diagonally, as I found this particularly striking. I took a couple of attempts at drafting them to get them even and balanced, and fitting within a square of the same size, but this was actually relatively easy to do. I decided not to do anything fancy with borders in between, but just to do a straight line passing through. The top of the bag I decided would be knit all in the crimson, with eyelets made for a drawstring to pass through.

My bag pattern can be found below.

I started knitting and all went well. For a while, I was taking it from place to place but never got to working on it. This had rather dire results: When I next looked at it, I found that I had lost a whole bunch of stitches in a way that was irreparable (about 20 or so stitches, through five or six rows). I put it away and sulked at it for six months or so. Before finally deciding to unpick it, I took some photos of the progress I had made.

This picture shows the rose pattern beginning to emerge.

This one shows where the stitches had been dropped.

I eventually unpicked it all, winding each thread onto an empty cotton reel as I did so. I had been using them just as they were, but they kept getting tangled, and the cotton reels are working well to prevent this. Since restarting, I am now 1/3 of the way through the project, and the first row of roses can be seen clearly, with the row of fleur de lis beginning to emerge. Unfortunately, uploading of images of this will have to wait until I get a battery recharger for my camera batteries, but I will upload progress shots once I do.


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The Weaver's Guild of Boston, 17th Century Knitting Patterns as adapted for Plimoth Plantation, 2nd edition (The Weaver's Guild, Boston, Massachusetts, 1990) visited 04/03/10 visited 04/03/10;id=67... visited 04/03/10

Christian de Holacombe, Medieval Knitting: From Islam to the West (Filum Aureum, Kingdom of the West (SCA), Winter ASXLI/2006) viewed at 04/03/10

Susan Saladini/Sof'ia Serafimskaia Silk Sion Purse Hand Knitted Reliquary Purse Documentation and Pattern viewed at 04/03/10