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Antique Accessories II: Beaded, Embroidered and Tapestry Bags

Beaded Bags 

Women have carried small handbags or reticule style (drawstring) purses since the Middle Ages, but from the mid-17th century onwards, there was a proliferation of domestic handicrafts. Bags were knitted to incorporate beads, and complicated designs involved great attention to detail. This became an upper class hobby, the designs often reflecting their makers' passion for flowers and botany, like this beaded bag from Europe, now in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The finer the beading on a bag, the older it is likely to be. In the 18th century, the manufacture of small beads was a highly technical skill limited to a few centres around the world. The sablé (covered with sand) technique was the preserve of just two Parisian workshops. Handbags with this style of beading mainly depicted allegorical scenes, including landscapes, historical landmarks and romantic encounters. In other parts of the world, beads were imported to create designs. 

During the 1920s and ‘30s, decorative clasps and frames added weight and sparkle to evening bags. Sometimes with semi-precious stones, beading and innovative hinges. Initially made by specialist craftspeople, the frames of bags were later mass-produced. 

From the early 20th century bags were increasingly made for travel, and started to feature accessories like mirrors and other receptacles for carrying pills, perfume, money, makeup and cigarettes. Beaded bags reached the height of their popularity in the 1920s. 

Geometric Art Deco motifs were common in the 1930s, when clutch evening bags took the movie-inspired fashion world by storm. Beaded bags were still popular in the 1950s, when more fun types of bag with novelty shapes and patterns entered the market, along with the increasing appearance of the zipped bag. 

Tambour Embroidery Bags

Tambour embroidery is thought to have originated in India, where it was known as Aari work (an aari is a hook in Hindi, which was used to create chain stitches). The technique of applying embellishments using a hook appeared in Europe from the 18th century, becoming known as tambour (drum), because the fabric used was stretched tightly across a frame, where the stitching took place. Beads and sequins were added from the late 19th century. 

The town of Lunéville became especially well known for its tambour embroidery, and the ‘Lunéville Hook’ technique is still employed by Haute Couture ateliers today. However, most modern beading is carried out by machine. 

Tapestry Bags

From the 1800s, weavers copied well known paintings to produce scenes and figures inspired by the tapestries made famous by makers in the French town of Aubusson. Tapestry bags often originate from continental Europe, but the style was also emulated in handicrafts practised by women in Britain and America. 

Tapestry bags remained popular until the early 20th century, experiencing a machine made revival during the 1950s. 

See ShopCurious's selection of beaded, embroidered and tapestry bags in our Antique Accessories collection. 


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