In Elizabethan England (1558 – 1603), elaborate purses were often used to parcel gifts, and this lustrous purse may have been intended as a luxurious gift wrap. At New Year’s, for example, higher nobles and bishops were obliged to present Queen Elizabeth with gold coin-filled purses as a sign of their gratitude and loyalty to their monarch.
Although purses of this kind were often made from knitted silk or silk satin with metallic threads, this purse was created by an ancient type of openwork knotting known as macramé, which took its current form in the 1500s. The word macramé is derived from the Arabic for lacing or piercing. In the sixteenth century, weavers in Italy and Spain (and soon after around the world) used macramé to decoratively secure unwoven fabric ends. The resulting lace-like fabric was known as macramé lace. Later, macramé pieces were made separately and then attached to textile ends.
This purse’s unlined macramé body is made from radiant gold and silver threads, formed by wrapping thin strips of metal around silk or linen strings. It fastens by braided metallic thread drawstrings that end in large fringe tassels. The diamond-shaped clusters seen on this purse may be renderings of grapes, a common seventeenth-century symbol for Bacchus, the god of grape-growing, wine and pleasure, as well as plentitude. The berries would have certainly been an appropriate motif for a purse intended for a Queen or member of the elite.
The author thanks Leslie Essoglou, Department Assistant of Indian and Himalayan Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, for tracing the Arabic etymology of the word macramé.
Laura Camerlengo is an Exhibitions Assistant with the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Costume and Textiles department. She is the author of The Miser’s Purse, a Cooper-Hewitt DesignFile e-book.