Embroidered Purse

I recently entered the Ice Dragon Pentathlon Arts and Sciences competition in the Kingdom of AEthelmearc.  I decided to summarize my entries in the next few posts.  I'll post links to the complete documentation at the end of each post.  

This pouch is modeled after several reliquary pouches from the late 14th and early 15th centuries embroidered in brick stitch.  These pouches are mostly traced to production in areas now part of modern Germany, however, some are labeled as originating in Italy.

Reliquary bags were used throughout the medieval period to store various relics reputedly from saints, apostles, or other religious figures.  These bags might be kept individually or stored inside small altars or ornate crafted reliquaries, as seen in the portable alter commissioned by Countess Gertrude of Braunschweig from Lower Saxony ca. 1045.

Although modeled after religious devotional items, this pouch was created for a secular purpose.  Cloth purses are seen in many medieval manuscripts in the late 14th and early 15th century.  Most are in use by women, often worn between the layers of her clothing. The style of these purses is consistent with the extant examples of reliquary pouches: a small drawstring bag with tassels and a string to hang (presumably from a belt).  Pouches in illuminations often appear to be of a solid color with no embroidered pattern and several examples from excavations in London reveal pouches made of patterned material, but no embroidery.  Despite these unadorned examples, it can be surmised that women of means would possess pouches with rich decoration similar to alms purses from earlier in the 14th century decorated in the Opus Anglicanum technique.

Examples of women with small drawstring purses from the    Tacuinum Sanitatis

Examples of women with small drawstring purses from the 

Tacuinum Sanitatis


I took initial inspiration for this pouch from an extent example in the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A).  Master Richard Wymarc (m.k.a.  Timothy J. Mitchell) has already recreated this bag and I used his resource, “A Stitch Out of Time: 14th and 15th Century German Counted Thread Embroidery” as a starting point for my piece.  As the author was fortunate enough to view the piece up close, I relied on his observations for some design decisions.

My inspiration pieces: from the V&A (top) and the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage  © KIK-IRPA, Brussels  (bottom)

My inspiration pieces: from the V&A (top) and the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage © KIK-IRPA, Brussels (bottom)

I chose to keep the original dimensions of the pouch (approx. 3 3/8 inches square).  I wanted to use the same pattern of German Brick Stitch, but chose to alter the color combination to match the colors of my husband’s SCA heraldry.  I kept the green and the white the same, but changed the original areas of blue to black, and red to yellow.  I did not want the yellow to be washed out next to the white and chose a bright yellow that would give enough contrast in the finished piece.

Although this piece in the V&A does not include a drawstring, there are holes in the upper band indicating the presence of a drawstring originally.  I wanted to include a drawstring and a cord to hang the pouch from a belt similar to another example in the V&A.   My final design of the cords and tassels came from an example in the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (RICH) in Brussels (Object #10152670). This example shows a hanging cord, separate drawstrings with small tassels, and two multi-colored tassels at the bottom corners.

The catalog image also gives a very detailed view of the side seam construction.


The examples in museum collections indicate a linen ground for the embroidery.   I chose tightly woven white linen (Alba Maxima) that is close to even weave, but not marketed as such.  I used white because I did not want a darker color to show through the white linen embroidery thread. 

For the white embroidery, I chose white 100/3 linen thread.  This thread is a fine even spin that has a similar thickness to the silk embroidery thread used in the piece.  For the colored embroidery, I selected to use Au ver à soie Ovale flat silk thread in yellow, black, and green.  This type of silk is known as a reeled or filament silk thread.  It is not tightly spun and as a result, I could cover a larger area without the ground showing through.  It also gives a luxurious sheen to the piece.

There is little information about the linings of extant purses other than the material being silk. In some cases, this is because the lining has not survived.  I chose to line the pouch in red damask silk.  

The Turk’s Head knots are made from silk gimp, a type of cord.  I made the gimp following a tutorial from Medieval Silkwork.  The core is three strands of natural colored linen thread and I wound yellow silk around it until I had a length of about 50 cm.  This gave me enough cord to form two small Turk’s Head Knots.


Bags of this type were typically one piece, with the front and back embroidered as a seamless unit and then folded along what becomes a side of the pouch.   I chose to have the fold for this bag along the bottom for visual symmetry. 

I used a rectangular embroidery frame to hold the fabric at an even tension.  

The embroidery was completed using the technique for brick stitch as described by Mitchell in Section 2: Recreating the Style.  From his close examination of the extant pieces, he has determined the most likely course of the thread by the grouping of warp and weft in the ground fabric.  

I worked the white linen embroidery first and then filled in the colored silk sections.

After completing the embroidery, I attached the silk lining.  I decided to sew the long edges and form a tube of the lining and embroidery.  I then turned it right side out and folded the bag horizontally along the center line.  This placed the raw edges at the mouth of the bag and provided a clean side seam.

I finished the seams using a technique originally described on the blog MedievalSilkwork by Machteld. I chose to use both yellow and green thread for this technique and integrated the ends into the tassels at the bottom corners.  

The original bag has a strip of fabric around the top edge and I chose to use a strip of white linen matching the ground fabric and linen embroidery.  By comparing the total measurement of the pouch with the percentage of space the strip takes up, I determined it was at its widest 1/2 inch and at its narrowest 5/16 inch.  I chose to make my border 1/4 inch wide.  I attached this strip after I completed the side seams and attached the purse strings.  This concealed the raw ends under the linen and creates a neat appearance.  This border has no eyelets for the drawstring, which is simply threaded through holes made with an awl.  This is by design and is consistent with the extant examples from the V&A as well as the RICH.

Inside of pouch before the white strip is added to the top - in this image the purse hanger is tucked inside after being sewn to the inside edges.

The drawstring and cord were constructed from finger loop braiding.  I used green silk to make the cords:  a smaller round braid for the drawstrings and a wider flat braid for the purse string.   I made two sections of braids for the drawstring and wove them through the holes with the beginnings of the braids on opposite sides of the pouch.  When the two ends are pulled, the pouch closes easily. 

The tassels were constructed using a mix of green and yellow silk.  To construct the tassels I wound a strand of green and yellow simultaneously around a card until I reached the desired thickness.  I then tied a piece of green silk through the top of the cluster of threads and cut the loops that formed at one end.  A piece of white linen was used to tie the center of the tassel.  The tassels were then threaded through the corners of the pouch and tied off on the inside.  Another piece of white linen was used to tie the center of the tassel in order to integrate the ends of the thread from the side seams.

The knots are Turk’s Head Knots are constructed from the yellow silk gimp.  I used an online visual tutorial to begin the knots using a piece of card as the support.  I then worked them with my fingers to the desired size.

As in any large project, I would do several things differently. Here are a few:

Being a novice embroiderer, the back of the work was not as neat as I would have liked. At times, I had to double back if I missed a spot.

The flat braid I used for the purse hanger is not as flat as desired even after several attempts. There are several mistakes I noticed in the braid, which contributes to the braid rolling, but this was by far my best attempt with regard to tension.

I am pleased with how the Turk’s Head knots turned out, but working them down to the desired size from the initial card support was frustrating and time consuming. I ultimately decided to leave them off the drawstring, because I could not make them small enough to keep from slipping off the cord. I plan to attempt these knots in the future in order to find an easier way to make them small enough.



Luisa Cogliati Arano, The Medieval Health Handbook: Tacuinum Sanitatis , (New York: George Braziller) 1976.

Elisabeth Crowfoot, Frances Pritchard, and Kay Staniland, Medieval Finds from Excavations in London : 4 Textiles and Clothing 1150-1450 , (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press) 2002.

Geoff Egan and Frances Pritchard, Medieval Finds from Excavations in London : 4 Dress Accessories 1150-1450 , (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press) 2002.

Tasha Dandelion Kelly, La cotte simple, http://cottesimple.com/.

Timothy J. Mitchell, “A Stitch Out of Time: 14th and 15th Century German Counted ThreadEmbroidery ,” accessed December 5, 2012, http://wymarc.com/asoot/asoot.php.

Medieval Silkewerk , accessed March 7, 2013, http://www.silkewerk.com/.

Medieval Silkwork, accessed November 10, 2012, http://m-silkwork.blogspot.com/.

Treasures ofHeaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe ,” accessed February 16, 2013. http://learn.columbia.edu/treasuresofheaven/.

Turk’s HeadKnot,” accessed March 2, 2013, http://www.animatedknots.com/turkshead/.


Bag, 14thcentury, linen embroidered in silk, 14.5 cm x 12.5 cm, Object # 8313-1863, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, accessed January 9, 2013, http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O115592/bag-unknown/.

Bag, 14thcentury, linen embroidered in silk, Object # 8699-1863, Victoria & Albert Museum, London,  accessed January 9, 2013, http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O144713/bag-unknown/.

Bourse-reliquaire, 10 cm x 10 cm, Object # 10069247, Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage, Brussels, accessed March 1, 2013, http://www.kikirpa.be/EN/45/63/Photolibrary.htm.

Bourse-reliquaire, 7 cm x 7 cm, Object # 10152662, Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage, Brussels, accessed March 1, 2013, http://www.kikirpa.be/EN/45/63/Photolibrary.htm.

Bourse-reliquaire, 7 cm x 7 cm, Object # 10152670, Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage, Brussels, accessed March 1, 2013, http://www.kikirpa.be/EN/45/63/Photolibrary.htm.

Link to the complete documentation in PDF:

Embroidered Purse