Whether given as a love/marriage token, or simply to hold alms for the poor, the square drawstring purse or pouch with tassels existed concurrent with other fashions for several centuries.
In the Spanish Book of Games of Alfonso X, dated 1251-1282, there are multiple images of drawstring pouches under the various chess problems. These examples from f40v and f52v clearly show the basic form – handle looped over the belt or a holder, separate from the drawstrings, with tassels on the bottom, and sometimes, indication of decoration.
The Manesse Codex, (f.64r) shown up top, at the start of the 14th C (1302-1340) shows a peddler, selling belts and multiple styles of pouches. Several show a drawstring separate from the hanging loop, and tassels along the bottom. The illumination is quite clear, and we see decoration in the form of lines and patterns, but not extensive pictorial embroidery.
The market stall illustrated (f.185v) in the mid-15th C German manuscript, Der Renner, includes a number of accessories – belts, combs, knives, and a wide variety of pouches. A few seem to be of the tasseled drawstring variety, although the illumination is not detailed enough to see more than each pouch has multiple colors. This manuscript is dated 1446-1450.
Jump to the 15th C, in The Book of Simple Medicines (BNF Fr. 12322, fol. 121v), c. 1520-1530, and we see the same style of pouch, this time worn under the top dress layer, where we wouldn’t normally see it.
Many of the extant examples are highly embroidered, but I suspect the style was executed for many different economic levels. The more commonplace ones simply weren’t collected and saved. The more utilitarian ones were more likely to be in poor repair, and even if in good condition, the early collectors tended to focus on the outstanding, not the average.
However, we can use those outstanding survivals to help us determine the usual size and construction methods.
This close-up of a reliquary purse, in the treasury of the Cathedral of St Paul, Liege, Belgium, dated to the 13th C, shows the lack of any type of eyelet for the fingerlooped drawstring. This bag is listed as 8.5cm high, and 7cm wide. Still includes a lining and tassels at the bottom.
This late 14th C example from the Museum of London is 100mm high, with tassels, and 120mm wide (according to the website, although it looks mostly square.) It was made of a fine silk, and the side & top edges are bound with a tablet woven strip, that also helps form the tassels. The handle/drawstring is made of a fingerlooped braid.
An embroidered example at the Cloisters section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from 14th C France includes a fingerlooped drawstring that weaves back & forth through the fabric, but doesn’t appear to have any holes cut or stitched for that. The sides & top, as well as the handle, appear to be bound with a wide fingerlooped braid. (Although it could also be tablet woven onto the edge.) Size is 152mm x 143mm.
There are also many extant “sweet bags” from the late 16th/early 17th C, which are all embroidered, and have developed their own specific style. The bags still have the tassels and drawstrings of their pouch ancestors, but also have little loops of metal (or stiffened cord) that the tassels attach to. The number of tassels has gone down to just three on the bottom, with tassels on each upper corner as well. The size hasn’t changed much – ranging from 11 to 14cm, with many a bit wider than tall.
Having a separate handle from the drawstrings makes it possible for the pouch to remain attached while opening and closing. By not having any slits or eyelets for the drawstring cord to go through, there is increased friction between the pouch body and the cord, which would tend to keep the pouch as the wearer last left it. That increased friction is also an opportunity for increased wear, however. Most are lined, and made of a single piece of outer fabric. A tabletwoven edging onto the side and top seams is very hard-wearing and durable, and not that difficult a task. Economic status can be seen in the choice of fabric- nice woven, brocaded, or embroidered. Size is fairly stable, between 4-6 inches square.
For additional references on this style, visit my pinterest board, the Linkspages at Larsdatter.com or the excellent article by Tasha Kelly McGann. Some of the drawstring pouches identified as reliquary pouches are smaller, but many of the construction details are the same.
See my Tasseled Drawstring Pouch Tutorial for a pattern and step-by-step instructions. (Coming Soon, after the Secret Project is finished this weekend.)