A few years ago I got to attend 9 months of historic sewing classes offered by the Colonial Williamsburg Costume Design Center. These classes began at the very same time I was beginning my colonial historical sewing journey. I learned a prodigious amount of information from these wonderful ladies of the CDC from both the historical and the stitching viewpoint of each garment which has helped me enormously as I've attempted historical sewing for my kids and me.
One of the classes I took was for workbags which seems to be such a common name for a lovely creation. However these little silk wonders often contained hand work complete with a few sewing accoutrements that a fine lady could take out when she had time to sit and showcase her lovely craft, such as embroidery or knotting (another class I took).
Before I proceed with the details of a workbag, here are some of my favorite extant examples!
Here is a stunning late 17th century work bag with red wool embroidery on white linen at the MET.
From LACMA is a lovely late 18th century white bag with colorful fly fringe! At this point in time I think the work bag was transitioning into the reticule.
From the MET here is an old example from the early 17th century, which uses silk and metal embroidery.
Now for a few favorites from Colonial Williamsburg:
Here is a pink silk workbag with lovely silk embroidery from the late 18th century. Acc. Num: 1958-26
Here is a creamy colored silk workbag with metal sequins and colorful fringe, from the late 18th century. Acc. Num: 1958-27
Our class was so wonderfully packed with information and numerous projects, that I didn't finish any of my bags. The intent of the class was not to complete projects, but to give us all the background and historical and how-to information and practice needed to easily complete the project at home. In this class we also learned about pockets and market wallets, both of which I completed within the year. My silk workbag however, was a hesitation to me to complete. I had wanted to embroider it, so I've been researching silk workbags and their embroidery since the class, taking photographs of lovely ones I've seen in museums and collecting images on-line. One of the aspects of the class was to show us extant images on-line and in books, to show us how to conduct our own research when we leave the class! Since my days are usually quite busy between homeschooling and sewing historical clothing to wear, I never settled down to draft an 18th century embroidery design for my workbag.
I found some rococo trim, which is a tape made from strips of rectangles that are looped. I sewed that into a circle pattern, like many extant workbags that we were shown at the CDC class. Although I had learned to make silk ribbon flowers in a couple of my CDC classes, I'm not quite adept at them yet. Therefore I bought 6 of them to embellish my bag. Some of the extant workbags that we were shown have a flower at the end of the ties, so I decided to use 2 of my ribbon flowers for that. The other 4 I laid out in a symmetrical fashion. I've never seen ribbon flowers used on a workbag in this way, however I do know that the 18th century prized symmetrical looks, so I used that type of patterning instead of a random, scattered look.
The fashion fabric is a greenish silk, from the CDC class. The rococo trim is actually light pink flowers with light green leaves. The silk ribbon flowers are of creamy satin with green satin leaves.
The inside is lined with a creamy satin fabric, also from the CDC class.
Here is the workbag modeled with a future silk gown that I am working on, from a Burnley and Trowbridge gown draping class I took last autumn with the Colonial Williamsburg mantua maker. The colors don't match, but that never bothered anyone in 18th century. I'm sure that someday I'll make another silk workbag of a cream color for my own coordinating aesthetics.
Now for the HSF details:
The Challenge: #11 Squares, Rectangles and Triangles
Year: 18th century
How historically accurate is it? highly accurate, 100% hand sewn
Hours to complete: about 5
First worn: not yet
Total cost: supplies part of a class