Sweet Bags and Fragrant Samplers: Exquisite Threads @ NGV International

My obsessions are plentiful and run deep. I’m not only potty about perfume and serious about smell, but I’m mad about music and tantalised by textiles too. So, last week I spent a couple of hours at the National Gallery of Victoria’s — now finished — exhibition Exquisite Threads: English Embroidery 1600s-1900s. Expecting my mind to focus very much on the textiles and fabulous hand-worked embroidery in this exhibition, I was soon surprised to discover several references to scent and fragrance, and decided to take some snaps of the relevant pieces to share with you.

Fragrant Samplers

I found not one, but two samplers referring to the scent of flowers at Exquisite Threads. A sampler is a piece of embroidery that is used to both practice and demonstrate skill in sewing various stitches to form letters, text, numbers and images. Samplers often include letters of the alphabet and strings of numbers, decorative borders, and verses, poems or religious quotations. They are usually signed with the name of the person who completed the sampler, and the date. European samplers of the style seen here were regularly produced — and used as educational and moral tools for young women and girls — from the start of the 16th Century to the early 20th Century.

The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) says the following about samplers:

“For young middle-class women, embroidery was a matter of learning, discipline and moral instruction; skills honed through the making of samplers.” (Quoted from the Exquisite Threads artwork labels pdf)

Sampler by Sarah Burch, Aged 7, 1778.

Sampler by Sarah Burch, 1778. Collection: National Gallery of Victoria.

Sampler by Sarah Burch, silk thread on linen, 1778. Collection: National Gallery of Victoria.

Sampler by Sarah Burch 1778

Sampler by Sarah Burch, detail.

 On Youth

Fragrant the Rose is but it fades in time the Violet sweet,
but quickly past the Prime, white Lilies hang their heads,
and soon decay, and whiter Snow in Minutes melt away
Such and so withering are our early Joys, which time or
Sickness, speedily destroys.

This little verse only has a tenuous connection to fragrance, nevertheless, it is interesting how both smell and flowers are central to its examination of lost youth, and how decaying flowers are used as a metaphor for this loss. It is also interesting that its maker, Sarah Burch, is pondering such themes at the tender age of seven. Regardless, I’m jealous of her needlework skills and cannot imagine a contemporary seven-year-old making anything remotely as impressive as this!

Sampler by Mary Dale, 1813.


Sampler by Mary Dale, silk thread on linen, 1813. Collection: National Gallery of Victoria.


Sampler by Mary Dale, detail.

The flowry spring at thy command
Perfumes the air and Paints the land
The summer rays with vigour shine
To raise the corn and cheer the vine
Seasons and months and weeks and
Days demand successive songs of
Praise and be the grateful homage Paid
With morning light and evening shade

Once again, we have a simple poem about nature, including a mention of the perfume of flowers in the spring time. What I love about both of these verses is that people speak of nature as if it’s an important part of life, and that they notice the fragrance of flowers. It makes one realise that nature was much more revered and less cut off from day-to-day life in pre-industrial England than it is now.

Sweet Bag / Purse, Early 17th Century

This exquisitely hand-embroidered purse, or “sweet bag” dates from the early 17th Century and is made from linen, silk (thread), gilt-metal (thread), and seed pearls.
"Sweet bag", early 17th Century. Collection: National Gallery of Victoria.

“Sweet bag”, early 17th Century. Collection: National Gallery of Victoria.

“What on earth is a sweet bag”, I hear you ask? The NGV’s exhibition label describes it as follows:

“This small square purse is typical of bags of the period, sometimes described as ‘sweet bags’ because they held sweet powders to scent clothes and linen.” (Quoted from the Exquisite Threads artwork labels pdf)

The wonderful website Historical Needlework Resources has the following to say about sweet bags:

“‘Sweete Bags’ were produced during the Elizabethan period of English history. They were often given as gifts themselves or they were used as container for gifts, such as gold coins. They are some of the best known examples of Elizabethan embroidery, due to the large number which have survived to the present day. It is likely that they have survived in such numbers because the beauty of the items has made them desirable since they were first made.”

It is thought that such bags were filled with sweet-smelling substances, including spices, flowers, scented powders and herbs, in order to cover up the unpleasant odours which were rife during this era of poor hygiene and sanitation.

I had such a wonderful time at the NGV’s Exquisite Threads exhibition. Two of my passions, textiles and fragrance, were indulged at once, so how could I not be happy? I hope you’ve found today’s post interesting and that you’ve enjoyed seeing my photos of these beautifully crafted items and learning a little about the history behind them.

As I said, this exhibition finished last week, but if you’re interested in finding out more, or have a penchant for embroidery, you can buy the exhibition catalogue from the NGV website.