Beaded Purses Exhibit

Beaded Purses: Curated by Emily B Miller
Showing at Baubles & Beads May 24th-June 19th

Tiny beads made of glass and steel that have been out of production for nearly 100 years, silk thread, needles, fabric and time make up this great exhibit. A beaded bag could take anywhere from a month to nearly a year to complete. From the Victorians and the Flappers to modern bead workers, beaded handbags have always been a canvas to explore color and mastery of technique. Our newest exhibition features handbags that span over 100 years, from delicate knitted versions with the soft drape of silk yarn holding thousands of beads together in decorative patterns to sweet dance purses designed to slip over the fingers of a flapper, the perfect size to hold a lipstick and mirror. The exhibit also features French steel cut examples and several modern loomed handbags that are meant to show the skill of the bead worker on a large project.

Bead Knitted Purses

Two fine examples of knitted glass beaded bags.

Two fine examples of knitted glass beaded bags.

From the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s there was a rise in the commercial manufacturing of beaded purses which fostered a market for the sale of patterns and supplies for making beaded purses and accessories at home. Knitting was a staple in every household from the poorest to the richest; women could express their creativity with fiber and needles. Bead knitted purses were made from patterns or kits, each bead was strung on ‘purse silk’ in a pattern using tens of thousands of beads. Each knitted stitch included a single bead. Steel beads allowed for many metallic colors, which were often mixed with colored fibers. Loom weaving was also used producing flat canvases to use for design. Popular patterns included flowers, garden scenes, strong geometrics, and popular culture trends of the day such as the Egyptian Revival styles that followed the discovery of King Tut’s tomb.

French Steel Cut Bags

A French steel cut purse. Notice the colors of the beads distinguishing it from American steel cut beads.

A French steel cut purse. Notice the colors of the beads distinguishing it from American steel cut beads.

Both France and the United States produced steel cut beads. The French versions were by far the most exquisite and sought after as their manufacture included chemically and electrolytically colored beads in an amazing variety of hues. Many of the bags made of steel cut beads were loom woven by hand, many originating from Austria. The demise of the steel cut purse was due in great part to the deterioration of both bead and bag structure. The steel beads were prone to rust, and the sheer weight of the beads caused the silk threads they were strung on to break.

Notice the damage caused by wear in this bag. The silk lining is shredded and beads are coming loose from the sides.

Notice the damage caused by wear in this bag. The silk lining is shredded and beads are coming loose from the sides.

Swag Beaded Bags

A knitted glass bead bag. Notice the exquisite frame that has at one time been reattached to the purse in contrasting thread.

A knitted glass bead bag. Notice the exquisite frame that has at one time been reattached to the purse in contrasting thread.

Swag designs became popular in the early 1910’s. These designs often incorporated the color of silk with solid color blocks of beads. These patterns were widely available, quick and easy to make, and rather inexpensive.

Dance Purses

A collection of purses featuring the tambour technique of beading.

A collection of purses featuring the tambour technique of beading.

The Roaring 20’s signaled a different need in handbags, something that kept up with the current fashions and allowed for more freedom for women. Young women were attending casual events and dancing was a large part of the entertainment. Smaller bags with beads embroidered on the surface using a new technique, tambour beading, allowed for the faster application of beads with flowing patterns including swirls and curls in the designs. Mixed types of beads, glass pearls, faceted ‘cut’ beads and one-facet charlotte beads were popular. Many of these bags were imported from the Czechoslovakia, Belgium and France.

Beaded Bags in the 50’s

A small clutch purse.

A small clutch purse.

There was still a market for ‘lady-like’ handbags in the rock and roll era of the 1950’s. Bags took on a more structured look. The popular styles included box shapes, with firm sides, often with a short strap or as a clutch to be hand carried. These bags had matching mirrors and compacts. Imported bags were the norm, with handmade bags falling our of favor to machine made styles.

Contemporary Beaded Bags

A contemporary loom woven bag by Emily B Miller.

A contemporary loom woven bag by Emily B Miller.

There are many techniques currently being used to make beaded handbags. Knitting, crochet and loom weaving are some of the most popular today. Patterns are hand drawn or can be digitally designed. Loom weaving can be used to produce flat or round shapes depending on the experience of the beadworker. On exhibit are two pieces in process. One is still threaded on the loom while the other has been removed from the loom and the artist is in the process of weaving in the warp threads. Bead embroidery has also emerged as a popular method for embellishing fabrics and leather to create a beaded handbag. Improvements in the manufacturing process of beads has resulted in creating beads with consistent shape, size, and larger holes, making for faster and more even results.

More information about beaded purses can be found in an excellent book by Evelyn Haertig: More Beaded Purses ISBN# 0-943294-009.
In 2007 the Lacis Museum of Lace & Textiles, located in Berkeley, CA, held an exhibition celebrating the beaded bag. Visit their exhibition page to view slides of their showing.

About Emily B. Miller and her love for beaded handbags…..

“When I saw my first small white purse I imagined a young woman out to dance and have a wonderful time… as I saw more and more of these little purses, (mostly white and cream) I was drawn to their naiveté, simple sweet purses just the right size for a lipstick, compact and a bit of mad money…”

“I started my collection pretty innocently with a purchase on Ebay of one little bag for $10. It quickly spiraled out of control! I’ve found bags at antique stores, yard sales, thrift shops, and flea markets. I have collected so many that I’ve been known to give a piece of jewelry in a beaded bag! I’ve learned a bunch by rehabbing a bag, how to replace the lining, make a new strap, and fix the loose beadwork. Making my own designs into bags was a huge undertaking, but the results are bragging rights for a lifetime. Any special event calls to carry a beaded handbag, and sometimes just for every day.”

About beadshopgirl
My name is BeadShopGirl and I'm a beadaholic. In the morning, in the afternoon and into the night I think about them, match them and even dream about them. And here I blog; all about beads.

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