Work bag

Date: 1669

Culture: British

Medium: Linen worked with wool thread; double running and herringbone stitches

Dimensions: Overall, excluding tasseled cords: 18 1/2 x 24 in. (47 x 61 cm)

Classification: Textiles-Embroidered

Credit Line: Purchase, Friends of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Gifts and Rogers Fund, 2006

Accession Number: 2006.263


Work bags were used to store embroidery implements, supplies, and possibly unfinished projects. The exact place this object would have held in a young girl’s embroidery education is not certain; we do not know what ten-year-old I.S. produced before she made her work bag in 1669. Given the impressive level of skill evident on samplers produced by young women of the seventeenth century, it is entirely possible that this neatly worked bag was her first project instead of the usual sampler. Although other dated and initialed work bags exist, we do not know the ages of their makers.

This bag is decorated on both sides with red wool thread on a linen foundation, primarily with a double running stitch. Because this is a counted thread technique, it would not have been necessary to mark the linen fabric with the design before stitching. The carefully organized yet lively design of this bag is unusual in that an old-fashioned border design has been applied to a practical object. This type of border, a ropelike, meandering vine that encloses stylized flowers, is illustrated on one page of the 1554 pattern book Ornamento Delle Belle & virtuose Donne (MMA, 21.15.2bis). The popularity and longevity of this type of border pattern in English embroidery are evidenced by its appearance not only on the work bag but on many other seventeenth-century samplers (MMA, 13.109; 64.101.1327).

Late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century work bags were often similar in design and materials to extant bed curtains of the period, worked in crewel wool thread on linen foundation fabrics. This holds especially true for two dated bags, one at the Cora Ginsburg Gallery, dated 1675, and one in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, dated 1683 and initialed M.F., in their use of monochrome wool thread to depict large foliage and animals of the type seen on furnishings. Yet the detached motifs decorating the Metropolitan Museum’s bag—heraldic animals such as lions, leopards, and stags; relatively prosaic creatures, such as birds and caterpillars; human figures; and native plants and flowers, including strawberries, acorns, and honeysuckle—are arranged in a symmetrical composition around a central axis, both horizontally and vertically, in order to create a discrete composition, which is unique to this bag. The motifs are also typical of those found on English embroidered textiles throughout this era. Richard Skorleyker’s Schole-House for the Needle contains a number of relatively simple line drawings for detached motifs of flora and fauna that relate in style to those on this work bag. In addition to typical flora and fauna, the work bag also has the so-called boxer motifs, small figures on either side of the holly on the front of the bag, as well as larger human figures on the reverse in poses similar to the boxers. It is possible that these figures, whose nude bodies are covered with hair, are depictions of the "wild men" of medieval legend.

Two samplers, a 1675 example in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and another illustrated in Averil Colby’s Samplers, undated but signed by Elizabeth Cromwell, have detached, or spot, motifs that are very similar to those on this work bag—holly, oak, and strawberries, as well as animals with diagonal filling patterns, all executed in the same linear style. The 1675 sampler in the Fitzwilliam has been tangentially connected with a group of late seventeenth-century samplers identified by Edwina Ehrman as having been made under the tutelage of Judith Hayle of Ipswich (Suffolk), since they display especially close affinities with Dutch embroidery. It is possible that I. S.’s work bag may have been produced in this part of eastern England, where easy access to the Continent would have facilitated the transfer of designs. The large, symmetrical, stylized floral motifs that fill much of the area of the work bag, especially in the corners, are atypical of English designs and are more closely related to Dutch and German embroidery of the period.

[Elizabeth McMahon and Melinda Watt, adapted from English Embroidery from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1580-1700: 'Twixt Art and Nature / Andrew Morrall and Melinda Watt ; New Haven ; London : Published for The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York [by] Yale University Press, 2008.]