Survey of English Sweet Bags: 1575-1650

Lady Amie Sparrow

Kingdom Arts & Sciences Festival
Persona Pentathlon Competition
March 7, 2009

This paper surveys extant English sweet bags made from 1575 to 1650. In addition, this paper compares sweet bag sizes and materials, and includes a section on common motifs. Patterns have been created, where possible, to enable museum personnel or historic re-enactment groups to reproduce sweet bags accurately. For the first time, a list of sweet bags has been created that includes the museums that owns them, website addresses, and book references. I hope that other researchers will be able to use this data that I have compiled to help them along in their own research. This paper discusses 45 sweet bags.

This topic applies to my persona, who is an embroiderer by trade. Sweet bags and pin cushions are something that she would have made.

Genesis of the Paper
I attempted to make a historically accurate sweet bag. Because many areas of historic textiles have already been examined in depth, I assumed that similar examinations of sweet bags would be available to assist my execution of my copy. As I discovered, there is no detailed work on the topic that summarizes what sweet bags are and how to make a reproduction. So, in short, my own need for information started me on the sweet bag research path. Since the information is not exactly easy to gather, I decided that others might benefit from my research.

(Note: The only other contemporary sweet bag research in the United States I could find was by Melinda Sherbring, who as of this writing was writing a book and has a sample size of about 110 sweet bags as of our last correspondence.)

What is a Sweet Bag?
Sweet bags are small, heavily embroidered linen bags (averaging about 5″ x 5″) with draw strings, tassels, and a cord to hang it from a woman’s waist. The bags contained sweet herbs or powders to mask odors. They were worn by women of the middle-upper and upper classes in the late 16th / early 17th centuries. In addition, sweet bags provided the Elizabethan version of modern day sachets, to store with clothing keep clothes smelling sweet. There seems to be much more evidence for the latter usage. The diagram below shows the major parts of a sweet bag.

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