Who Made Them & Their Purpose

References agree strongly on the methods of creating sweet bags; they were embroidered by hand, by professional workshops and “amateur embroideresses” in the home. Given the high level of embroidery skills by non-professionals at the time, some academics find it impossible to identify whether a sweet bag is the work of an amateur or a professional. There does seem to have been a general shift of opinion about whether the patterns were designed by the individual or pre-drawn by artisans in workshops. Early opinion had it that many women made up their own designs for embroidery, taking from botanical books of the period. However, later opinion states that because there are very similar designs appearing in embroidery in many different locations across England, that a lot of patterns were pre-drawn for women.

“Embroidery was a necessary skill for young women and some of the professional embroiderers turned to supplying the increasing number of amateurs with ready-drawn patterns and equipment, the first embroidery kits. As the beginning of the 20th century, when Burrell began his collection, it was thought that 17th-centruy embroideresses produced their own designs which were regarded as charming and quant, but this has been shown not to be the case. The number of similar embroideries based on the same themes points to the existence of professional draughtsmen producing multiple copies for sale. Also, the likelihood of amateurs combining the same flowers and insects with the same story, in the same arrangement, is remote. For example, two embroideries in the Burrell Collection depicting Joseph spurning the advances of his master Potiphar’s wife [pl. 10] are virtually identical to one in the Lady Lever Gallery, Liverpool. These designs were derived from woodcuts and engravings, and although the needlewoman could have copies them herself, the original engravings are small and would have needed to be enlarged [pls 11, 12]. the existence of professional. The existence of professional draughtsmen would could adapt printed designs to their customers’ needs may also explain why so few embroideries can be directly attributed to designs in pattern books.”

There seems to be common agreement in the literature that sweet bags were used to cover odors, both on one’s person and stored with a clothes wardrobe. Historic texts refer to the buying of sweet bag materials and the use of the materials. For example, Janet Arnold quotes from historic records about sweet bags for Queen Elizabeth’s wardrobe in Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d:

“Great care was taken of the furs and fur-trimmed clothes. Adam Blan supplied quantities of sweet powder each year and this was put into silk bags to lay between garments. Many of the sweet bags were presented to the Queen as gifts but in 1562 Adam Bland supplied a large order of ‘one gross of Crimsen Sarsenet swete Bagges and viiij lb of swete powder as well to make swete our Robes and apparell remayning within our our Wardrobe of robes as also remayning within oure Tower of London all of our great waderobe’.”

The substances used in sweet bags included pulverized orris root, which has a fragrance similar to violets, and damask powder, which is orris root with damask roses. The bags that might hold this powder were an order of “one Dossen of silke Bagges with a twiste of golde and silke lyned lethere; Two dossen of large fustian Bagges with a lase of Thred: and two dossen of lesser Bagges all being perfumed with Amber Muske Syvett and stufte with perfumed Cotton and sweet powder all of our greate Guarderobe.”

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