I find great solace in my little Woolly Room – there is fabric, and wool, and books, and buttons, and knits, and pictures … and there are also bags! If you are hoping to hear about Gucci, and Louis Vuitton and Michael Kors, then read no further. These are handmade, vintage, passed down, charity shop finds. Yes, there is the odd Orla Kiely or two, chosen because of my passion for pattern, but they don’t really count as designer in my eyes (sorry, Orla!).
There are bags I’ve made for myself, and there are bags others have made for me. But let’s start with some of the very oldest. These are bags that have come to me from my grandmothers.I’ve never used the teeny weeny one at the top – the silk is perishing and it is very worn. It came from my maternal grandmother, but I think it is Victorian and may well have belonged to my great ( perhaps my great-great?) grandmother. A real treasure.
On the top right is a beautiful little petit point bag – and petit is the operative word here. The stitches are teeny tiny! I used it quite often when I was much younger – but now I am older and appreciate the workmanship more, I’m a bit reluctant to use it.
As for the bag on the bottom left – it is one of my favourites and it comes out for special occasions like weddings. It’s stamped leather work, Florentine, very soft. The handle had perished so I replaced it with a ribbon which I can change to match my outfit.
The bottom right beaded bag is Japanese, and what a labour of love! Teeny, tiny beads, subtle patterning. Just very, very occasionally I go to a very, very special evening event, and then this is my bag of choice.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have started with bags of such quality – where to go from there?! Well, I have lots of other bags in my Woolly Room. Let’s see what I’ve got hanging on the wall.Right at the centre back in the photo is this bag which I made about 10 years ago for my father who died last year. It was for his 80th birthday, and I’ve recorded the date and details on the strap (“written” with my sewing machine). It’s a bag I treasure especially because I know he treasured it too.It’s a knitted bag (lined with quite stiff fabric to stop it sagging), and I had a lot of fun picking out words and patterns that were important to him. He excelled at his classical language studies in his youth, and a love of Greek and Latin stayed with him for the rest of his life. You will find μηδὲν ἄγαν (the Greek writing on the left) written on the temple of Apollo at Delphi in Greece. It means: Nothing in excess – or Moderation all things. On the other side, the Greek writing could be translated (roughly) as Everybody chooses the best path for themself. Both these mottos were important to him, as were the Latin words from the Book of Psalms: The Lord is my illumination (on the left) and In you, Lord, have I trusted (on the right). And I have knitted Greek key patterns all over the bag – great fun to knit.So you’ll realise I love to work with words, to incorporate language into my designs. I also studied Classical Greek as a university student, so this next bag celebrates a motto that sums up the thought of the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus: Πάντα ῥεῖ. It means (very roughly): All is flux. Life is constant change. The fabric was once my grandmother’s curtains! It’s a very coarse linen weave, hand-embroidered with these wonderful wild flowery patterns. They were magnificent curtains, but don’t they just lend themselves to a fabulous bag? I just love that huge flower on the cover.Part of the fun of making your own bags is the nice surprises you can put inside. And the buttons!Often the fabric suggests the bag – as my grandmother’s beautiful curtains above did. But with this next bag, I made the fabric myself. That is to say, I knitted the pattern I wanted, put it in a hot washing machine wash to felt it – and then cut the resulting fabric up to make the bag.The interior treat is this gorgeous Alexander Henry fabric, featuring these terrifying knitting ladies. That is some knitting! They reminded me strongly of the three Fates of ancient Greek myth, the Handlers of the Threads of Time so I’ve added that story to the Alexander Henry one. You’ll see that I’ve embroidered the names of the three fates in their hair. In the Greek legends, Clotho (on the left) was the spinner of the thread of life, Lachesis ( on the right) measured each person’s lifeline, and Atropos ( in the centre) cut the thread of life. My Fates here are knitters not spinners – but still wickedly witchy women, and I have a sure feeling that they are knitting and measuring and finishing the knitting of my days. In recent years, I’ve been particularly drawn to the poetry of Mary Oliver, so several of my bags feature her words. This bag utilises boldly patterned fabric to make a statement with : Tell Me.I’ve always longed to be accosted by a stranger, asking “Tell me – what?!” Nobody ever has asked – but since you do, I’ll show you the answer, which is, of course, inside. This line is much-quoted, and justifiably so. It’s a good thought to carry about with you. Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life.I also used a poem by Mary Oliver for my green leaf bag. Again, the fabric – a leaf-green printed batik – inspired the pattern. When I’d embroidered all the leaves in place on a plain background, I felt the bag needed something else, and searching through Mary Oliver’s book, Thirst, I found “When I Am Among the Trees”. Just what I needed. It captures the sway and the breath of the trees calling out. “Around me the trees stir in their leaves and call out ‘Stay awhile.’ … And they call again, ‘It’s simple … you too have come into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.'”
Exactly. Thank you, Mary Oliver. How do you always manage to say it so well.
(I’ve altered her words slightly to fit the space on the bag)Other poets inspire me too. How evocative is this line is from John Donne’s poem of impossibilities! “Go and catch a falling star.”Lots of other little bags hang on the walls of my Woolly Room. This little group below features a charmingly hand-embroidered sewing bag, a colourful beaded bag from Monsoon below, a glam little evening bag cleverly made by my daughter from a gorgeous scrap of one of my grandmother’s dresses – and a Little My brown paper carrier bag! It takes all sorts!The next two little bags are both Japanese. My father worked in Tokyo for many years in my childhood, and my mother acquired a lot of beautiful Japanese fabrics while there. These don’t get much used, but they are much treasured.This piece of daughter Helen’s work glitters and glams it up. Featuring Alex from the Clockwork Orange, it’s a student piece of hers, made when she was a beginner seamstress. It’s just cool!Some thirty years or so ago (goodness!) I had a spell of enthusiastically painting patterns on fabrics. I wanted a commodious bag for a family trip to Paris, and this bag was just perfect. It brings back very happy memories.There are lots of green bags, of course (my favourite colour). That’s an Orla Kiely bag on the far left; next is an amazing mock-croc I found in a charity shop; then, there’s my embroidered leaf bag; next is a bag made in the Phillippines of recycled packaging (so ingenious); and on the right, a ditsy little grass effect bag – much faded, alas, but still convincingly grassy.Just – very occasionally – I will buy an expensive bag. I found this bag on Ebay, whilst searching for felted bags, and – it was irresistible.
What makes it so very fascinating is that the pattern is completely created by the embroidery – and what an extraordinary range of embroidery stitches there are! Was it a sampler? So often I have looked at it and wondered who CF was, and when she (he?) lived. I’m guessing it was done in the 1920s-30s – what do you think?There are working bags of another sort – my sewing and knitting bags. This is my much-travelled Solace bag which accompanies me with my knitting when I go away. It was a gift from Rebecca of Needle & Spindle (so had quite a journey in the first place to get here from Melbourne), and it does indeed give me great solace. Portable solace, you might say.And there are still new bags coming! This is another needlework/knitting bag, and another generous gift. I just love the lemon-slice print – thank you so much, Issy.Not just bags of fun – bags of happiness, inspiration, memories, treasures, generosity … and love.