Needlepoint Purses

The term “fashion” could mean a myriad of different things to different people. Some may abide by its rules as if they are divine commandments, while some may condemn it altogether, on grounds of frivolity and wastefulness. That being said, there are some objects belonging to the controversial realm of fashion, that almost all women—and some men—have carried, out of either necessity, choice, or sheer sense of exhibitionism—one such example being the handbag. Consequently, many of us hardly need to think, before reaching for our handbag prior to leaving home. Thus, the bag has gained an omnipresence in the life and wardrobe of women in general, and the modern, independent, and stylish woman in particular. In fact, some women—myself included—could be seen carrying more than one bag on any particular occasion. On a basic level, the handbag has come to hold our most intimate and ordinary items of personal importance deemed necessary for performing our daily duties.

Fig. 4 Watteau, Jean-Antoine. The Scale of Love. 1715–18, Oil on Canvas, The National Gallery, London.

With the passage of time, sartorially conscious men and women have shown particular interest in the fashions of the past. In fact, in the words of Giorgio Riello, “It is almost paradoxical that a phenomenon like fashion, which is continuously defined as ephemeral, leaves behind such a considerable quantity of surviving artefacts” (7). Therefore, it is the materiality of the fashion object that is of central emphasis to this blog, rather than the immaterial and abstract idea of what fashion may be or represent. Accordingly, the object of fashion has served as a subject of interest for self-proclaimed fashionistas, serious collectors or academic scholars.

Author's own
Fig.1 Needlepoint Purse


On that note, it should come as no surprise, then, to recount a purchase that I made last fall at the Toronto Vintage Clothing Show. As you may have already guessed by now, yes, it was a bag that I fell in love with (figures 1–3). It is a rather small needlepoint bag, decorated with a pastoral scene reminiscent of eighteenth-century Rococo paintings by Jean-Antoine Watteau, such as The Scale of Love (fig. 4).


Fig. 3 Needlepoint purse, interior detail
Fig.2 Needlepoint purse, sideview detail




Interestingly, the earliest predecessors to the needlepoint bag may be the late seventeenth or early eighteenth-century pockets (fig. 5). Though we may associate pockets with modern women’s fashions, they were initially separate articles made of strong materials such as linen or cotton; their strength also reinforced through lining the interior. These pockets which held a lady’s personal items, such as handkerchief and pocketbook, were also beautifully embroidered in silk. Consequently, wide skirts in fashion, allowed for these roomy and deep pockets to be worn on a band at the waist, and safely concealed from public view (Wilson 34). In fact, due to their close proximity to the wearer’s skin, pockets were even considered by some as underwear (Cox 20). In addition to that, pockets were also highly symbolic of gendered binaries; social conventions demanded that, they be concealed when worn by women, as it was unbecoming for a respectable lady to be seen rummaging under her petticoats and into her pockets. In direct contrast to that, the highly visible and prominently positioned pockets on fashions revealed and asserted the male agency and power (Burman 459).

Fig. 5 A pair of linen tie pockets, embroidered in coloured silks in chain stitch. English 1700s. Accessories: Bags, Claire Wilcox, Fig. 23 overleaf, pp. 36–37.

These pockets eventually evolved into what is most similar to our own purses of today, the ‘reticule,’ which held a woman’s personal belongings and was carried in public (fig 6). In fact, the visibility of a woman’s reticule became a source of public scrutiny and led to instances of mockery and ridicule (Cox 20). Thus, it is important to note that, although material, these bags—or any other material item of fashion—were more than mere objects; they were signifiers of the larger socio-cultural, economic and personal practices within a nineteenth century context (Riello 5). Furthermore, the floral motifs and delicate embroideries of these objects were symbolic of nineteenth century gender dynamics. In direct contrast to the sobriety of the husband, was the frivolous beauty and the sweetness of the wife—the domestic diva in charge of flaunting the familial wealth (Cox 27).

Fig. 6 An Ackermann fashion plate from 1820 showing fashionable walking dress, including a reticule (vol. X, 2nd series, plate 4), Accessories: Bags, Claire Wilcox, Fig. 43, pp. 62.

In the highly problematic and misogynistic theories of Thorstein Veblen, “The homely reason for all this conspicuous leisure and attire on the part of the women lies in the fact that they are servants to whom, in the differentiation of economic functions, has been delegated the office of putting in evidence of their master’s ability to pay” (345). All the above considered, one must remain cognizant of the fact that, Veblen was writing for contemporary nineteenth-century society, where such notions—incredibly absurd to the twenty-first century reader—were highly normalized and rather largely accepted. Also, Christopher Breward maintains, the socio-economic significance of a woman’s wardrobe being “specifically concerned with the display of power through a wealth of textiles and the cultivation of physical beauty” dates back to the Medieval period or perhaps even earlier (33).


Fig. 7 Black needlepoint purse. 1930s. Catalog Number 1989.04.019 Ryerson Fashion Research Collection




In this next section, let’s closely examine, and compare my own bag, with the ones belonging to the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection (FRC) by doing a material culture analysis using the Slow Approach to Seeing, as developed by Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim.

Fig. 8 Needlepoint purse, side view detail






The first bag from the FRC with catalog number 1989.04.019 is a “black needlepoint purse in floral motif with pink, green and yellow circular pattern. Brass-coloured closure and looped chain handle” (figures 7–10).

Fig 9 Needlepoint purse, top view detail
Fig. 10 Needlepoint purse, interior detail













My own observation is that there is a hand-made/homemade quality to this purse, as the hand-stitched exterior layer is sewn onto the frame and the interior lining. In fact, I found the irregularity of the frame, as well as the overall floral pattern of the bag to be quite similar to other needlepoint purses c.1910 (figures 11–13).

Fig. 11 Tapestry evening bag with pastoral
Scene, France, c. 1910.
Handbags Calendar by Workman Publishing,
Feb. 1, 2011.
Handbag Courtesy of the Fashion Museum
Fig. 12 Floral petit point handbag with 1,800
Scene, France, c. 1910.
Handbags Calendar by Workman Publishing,
Feb. 1, 2011.
Handbag Courtesy of the Fashion Museum
Fig. 13 Floral needlepoint evening bag with
Brass frame and openwork clasp, Belgium, 1910.
Handbags Calendar by Workman Publishing,
Dec. 21&22, 2013. Handbag Courtesy of the
Sackrider Museum of Handbags

Consequently, the individual features of this purse are also more closely reminiscent of those popular in the first decades of the century, as seen in this fashion plate (fig 14) c. 1911. It is highly important to note, that the popularity and use of purses was due to the narrowing silhouettes of female fashions during the late nineteenth and into the early twentieth centuries.  According to Caroline Cox, women were significantly more engaged in public, which was partially thanks to the emergence of the department store, as well as their opposition to merely spending all their time at home. In fact, these women were interested in having their voices heard as contributing and active members of society and demanded more rights (33).



Fig. 14 La moda elegante illustrada, 1911.
Plate Caption (translation): La moda elegante illustrada. 30 May 1911. Preciados, 46, Madrid.
No. 20. Fashion Plates: 150 Years of Style, Plate 166, pp. 346–347.

The second bag belonging to the FRC with catalog number 2013.99.052 is a “needlepoint purse with brass closure” (figures 15–18). This purse has a semi-circular metal frame and chain handle, a kissing clasp closure that is decorated with two small clear beads on top.

Fig. 15 Needlepoint purse. 1930s
Catalog Number 2013,99.052
Ryerson Fashion Research Collection
Fig. 16 Needlepoint purse, side view detail












The surface is decorated with cross-stitched floral motifs and a central motif of a basket of flowers, and the interior of the purse is lined. The colours of this particular purse are much more vibrant compared to the other one belonging to the collection which, may suggest less use or, perhaps a later date.

Fig. 18 Needlepoint purse, interior detail
Fig. 17 Needlepoint purse, top view detail










I also found that the clasp is quite similar to an embellished purse from c.1920s (figures 19 and 20). Subsequently, this interest in petite point or needlepoint purses was also emphasized in popular women’s periodicals such as this article from The Women’s Wear Daily Archive’s January 23, 1925 issue (fig 22), suggesting “Handbags: Demand Said To Exceed Supply In Hand Embroidered Tapestry Effect Bags…”(25).

Fig. 19 Purse with embellished frame
and chain strap, 1920s.
Handbags Calendar by Workman Publishing
Oct. 8, 2008.
Fig. 20 Clasp detail of Needlepoint purse and chain strap, 1920s.












Fig. 22 Handbags: Demand Said To Exceed Supply In Hand Embroidered Tapestry Effect Bags
Women’s Wear; New York Vol. 30, Iss. 19, (Jan 23, 1925): 25.

Now, lastly—and most importantly—let’s examine my own bag. I have chosen to discuss this bag last, for I preferred to examine the earlier purses first, and subsequently, use their qualities to assist me in examining my own. Indeed, the seller was somewhat correct in her estimation of 1950s or 1960s. Along with this, I have found that although needlepoint bags made a comeback in the 1950s, it was not until the 1960s that they gained wider popularity amongst the fashionable (fig 21). Of course, this observation is based on examining existing sources for bags and finding that most needlepoint bags were dated as c.1960s, rather the 1950s. I am also pleased to find that, contrary to the seller’s belief, this bag, is in fact, an authentic needlepoint bag, however, it is definitely larger in size and its decorative pattern would most likely have been machine embroidered rather than done by hand.

Fig. 21 Suede evening bag with petit-point
Embroidered inset, Europe, 1960s.
Handbags Calendar by Workman Publishing
Oct. 25, 2011
Handbags courtesy of the Fashion Museum

In closing, my research took on a life of its own; indeed, I began by trying to find out more about the bag that I had purchased and, ended up also learning more about the ones found in the FRC. Furthermore, I find it quite fascinating that, needlework, being a pastime activity of higher class seventeenth century women who were excluded from public life, would become one of the defining motifs of the twentieth century and their early strides towards the emancipation of women and their sartorial choices.





Works Cited
Breward, Christopher. The Culture of Fashion. Manchster, 1995.
Burman, Barbara. “Pocketing the Difference: Gender and Pockets in Nineteenth-CenturyBritain.” Gender & History, vol. 14, no. 3, 2002, pp. 447–469.
Cox, Caroline. Bags: An Illustrated History. Arum, 2007.
Ivo, Sigrid. Bags: a selection from The Museum of Bags and Purses, Amsterdam: Tassen,Bolsos, Sacs. The Pepin Press, 2011.
Johnson, Anna. Handbags: The Power of the Purse. Workman Publishing, 2002.
Kopytoff, Igor. “The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process.” The social life ofthings: Commodities in cultural perspective, edited by Arjun Appadurai, Cambridge, 2017, pp. 64–91.
Mida, Ingrid, and Alexandra Kim. The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-Based Research in Fashion. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2015.
Pedersen, Stephanie. Handbags: what every woman should know. David & Charles, 2006.
Riello, Giorgio. “The object of fashion: methodological approaches to the history of fashion.”Journal of Aethtetics & Culture, vol. 3, 2011, pp. 1–9.
Veblen, Thorstein. “Dress as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture.” Fashion Theory: AReader, edited by Malcolm Barnard, Routledge, 2007, pp. 340–346.
Wilcox, Claire. Accessories: Bags. Thames & Hudson, 2017.
“Handbags: Demand Said To Exceed Supply In Hand Embroidered Tapestry Effect Bags”Women’s Wear Daily Archive, Vol. 30, no.19, Jan. 23, p.25.


2 thoughts on “Needlepoint Purses”

  1. As I have also worked on the analysis of a handbag from the same period, I really enjoyed reading your post. I found that your research on the historical context of bags, as well as how women use to wear them was very compelling and gave me more insights in this very particular and intricate type of purses. I also really appreciated that you brought more than one bag into this analysis which gave a great support to the final conclusions on your object. I am always amazed and impressed by the attention to detail that was brought into the design of these bags and I think it is highly comparable to the reality of today’s designer handbags making process. Somehow, this accessory managed to keep its status in women’s fashion and I think it is still considered by most of us, as you also mentioned in your introduction, as one of the most important item that we own since it follows us pretty much everywhere we go!

    1. Thank you so much Laurence for your thoughtful comment. As you also mentioned these purses are truly magnificent and objects of art in their own right. Am also very interested to see what your research on purses has revealed.

Leave a Reply