Sunday, February 26, 2017

In Progress: White Leather Drawstring Pouch

In my effort to dive as deep into my collection of 563 images of women from French manuscripts of the early 15th century, I have started the process of looking beyond dress and headdress formats to the details and accessories that appear as well. Shoes, belts, aprons, and pouches are everyday personal items that show up through the image collection, and, unsurprisingly, appear to follow somewhat similar patterns of style differences among the classes as the gown and headdress types do. The more exciting thing about these types of details is that they show up in smaller, digestible quantities that offer us the chance to see all of the examples together for comparisons and categorization. The first accessory I did this with were the pouches.

Pouches, either hanging from a belt or clasped in someone's hands, don't appear in all 10 manuscripts I've been looking at. In fact, I only found pouches on women in 4 manuscripts (version 1 and version 2 of The Comedies of Terence, and Le Decameron, and just one from The Book of Good Manners). These four manuscripts are the more secular manuscripts in the group, showing middle and lower class people in realistic, contemporary environments or contexts. The other manuscripts focus more on allegory, history, and courtly tales.

I found 16 pouches. That does not include repetitions of pouches shown on the same person (though I'll get to that in a moment). Two of the pouches have a somewhat unique character to them that I originally overlooked, so they don't appear in the image above. The striking thing about seeing the rest of the pouches together in this image is the prevalence of a specific type of pouch- the simple drawstring pouch.

Frame purses, the kind with a metal form that the pouch is sewn onto, and shaped purses are not found among this group. Researching further, outside of my little image collection, it appears that those types of pouches are, on the whole, men's pouches. I did find one example of a drawstring purse with a cover flap, which you can see below.

I looked into the text to get more information about this particular pouch. This is from the play "Eunuchus" by Terences (from BnF Arsenal, MS 664 reserve). The belt and pouch belong to the courtesan Thais, who was forbidden by law to wear gold jewelry in public. She gave the items to her slave so that she could accompany her lover out in the streets. Since it belongs to a prostitute who was not allowed to wear it in public, its actual use should probably be taken with a grain of salt.

The other common type of pouch we know of from this period are the embroidered aumônières, or alms purses. These bags, which came in a variety of types, consisted of embroidered panels that often showed courtly scenes, and used brightly colored silk and opulent gold threads. These pieces were not for the everyman, and were not intended for the rugged use of an everyday belt pouch. Instead, they were used to carry donation money or other special items, and were only brought out when these items were to be used.

I found a few examples of pouches that could very plausibly be these special alms purses. In the image with the 14 pouches above, I grouped them together down the right side. Note the bottom two are gold leaf- one of the few uses of gold leaf in that copy of Le Decameron. I also found the image below later, also in Le Decameron. It's an oversized purse, but it also appears to be one of these special types of bag, since it's been placed in the care of a lady-in-waiting and is not being worn. It may not be overtly embroidered, but it does give us a nice image of a drawstring bag with tassel decorations on the bottom and a hanging strap.

Back to the more commonly appearing pouches, 10 of the remaining 11 are simple drawstring sacks. Some of the do sport tassels, but in general, they are fairly plain. Also, 7 of them are white.

I like embroidered pouches as much as the next person, but these white pouches caught my attention. Not only are they correct for my class (meaning that if I was going to wear a pouch, there's a high likelihood it would be one of these unless I had a nicer pouch), they appear to be almost part of the uniform for the working class woman of this period, at least in terms of French manuscripts.

After some more looking, I ultimately figured out, after putting it out to friends on Facebook, that these pouches are plausibly leather. It was suggested that alum tawed goatskin may have been the best period match for the white color and the pliability the leather would need for a drawstring pouch. Even though alum tawed leather is susceptible to deterioration in moist conditions, it's really the only period method known that could produce a white leather. Natural goatskin is much more pink (flesh-colored) than the painted pouches suggest.

I took a lot of time to try to figure out how these pouches were constructed. My initial thought was a simple circle pouch, but the shape didn't seem right for that. The bottom is bulbous, but the top, where cinched, is narrow and neat- not a thick mess of gathering. A friend shared this image with me of a similar looking leather pouch from later in the 15th century.


The pleats on that pouch go all the way down, but there's no indication on the painted pouches of that. Still, the final shape is remarkably similar.

Trying to get a better handle on the pouch, I went back in to one woman's pouch in particular. She's a character in The Comedies of Terence, and she appears a number of times, each time with her pouch visible. So this gave me a collection of images of a single pouch represented several times.

This comparison shows that manuscript illuminators were probably not that anal about getting the details right every time. No two instances are the same. It has decorative tassels in two, but not the others. In one, the shape is not rounded on the bottom. One is thick and squat. Another is narrow and long. For the purposes of trying to determine the pattern for these pouches, this was rather useless. However, it did show me that there isn't really "one way", so I could be free to make up whatever pattern I wanted, as long as I was achieving the basic look in a way I was happy with.

I decided to pick one purse from the images to aim for. I chose the one below because it's one of the clearest examples in the bunch, and I like the specific shape. It also has little tassel-y bits on the ends of the drawstring and a separate hanging strap.

I started experimenting with some mock ups. I had found a pattern on Pinterest that seemed like it would get me the right result, so I used that as the basis for my mockup. I played around with it a few different ways, but didn't completely care for any of the results. The closest I got to what might work is the mockup below, but there are still issues.

While the tailored pleats create the right kind of 3-dimensionality, the result in the look isn't the same as the smooth round bottom of the painted pouch. I do, however, like the idea of using a center strap for the pouches 2 halves to attach to, since that strap can extend all the way around the pouch to also form the hanging strap. For some added style, I could certainly weave a white silk band for this, and that idea is pretty appealing. It's the way the leather pieces are shaped at the base that still needs thought.

I have a beautiful piece of soft, thin, white pigskin for this pouch. I looked at alum tawed goatskin, and it was too far out of my price range. Even though the white of the leather I did purchase is the result of a modern process, pigskin itself is certainly an acceptable period leather. It was a compromise I was willing to make in order to get the white color in a leather I could afford.

I'm excited to see what I ultimately end up with on this project. Leather is a new-to-me material, and it's nice to try something different. I like the idea of combining silk and leather to create a pouch with character and texture, so that's top of mind as I still consider my options for the actual shape of the leather pieces. I also go back and forth between lining the whole thing with white linen or opting for a surprising color, like red or blue, for a bit of hidden fun.

This is definitely a "see what happens" project at the moment, but it's one of the very few personal projects I'm working on right now, so I'm sure to get somewhere with it relatively soon.


  1. Wow. Thoroughly impressive research. Good luck with your pouch!

  2. I love the concept of this project, and will be pleased to see your progress! May I ask where you obtained your lovely white leather?

    1. I got that at my local Tandy Leather shop. The guy at the store was very helpful in directing me to my options in the color and price range I had in mind.

  3. Something to take into consideration is that good leather (especially soft, thin hides) will stretch with use over time. So a brand new pouch versus one that has seen a year or two of use would look different: more rounded and with softer, deeper gathers at the draw. The photo of the extant pouch shows reinforcement where the drawstrings gather at the edge, and I think this is original design, not a mend, because that's a place where considerable wear and stretching would occur. Just some thoughts! Thanks for an interesting post!

    1. That's an excellent point that I will definitely consider as I figure out the pattern. Thanks!