HALI's History of Textiles
Bags of Style
Words and images by HALI Publications Ltd.
HALI journeys through the glorious history of bags made from textiles - from embroidered pouches, to fringed bags, tapestry-woven bags and more - and finds they offer a remarkable insight into entire cultures.
Textiles turned into bags or containers can be found throughout all cultures and periods and can offer a fresh perspective on the potential of patterns and techniques. For nomadic communities they are a vital necessity, in other circumstances they represent status or even ward off evil spirits. Across the globe, bags have long married function and form, uniting the purpose of the object with the beauty of textiles.
Amongst the most famous nomadic weavers are the Turkmen tribes of Central Asia. The Yomut tribe, who moved with their flocks through a region which is part of modern-day Turkmenistan, used the wool from their sheep to weave some spectacular rugs and trappings. This pouch or ‘bokcha’ is beautiful example of another textile technique: embroidery. Made from traded woollen cloth it is stitched with apotropaic patterns, intended to protect users from the evil eye. These small pouches, made by sewing three patches of differently coloured cloth together, were made and used by women to store private items such as combs, make-up or mirrors.
A boldly drawn jungle cat decorates this striking Peruvian tapestry-woven bag (above, left) in the collection of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Bags of this kind usually feature animal iconography with strong black outlines, a type usually attributed to the Nasca/Wari cultures of southern Peru. This example is notable for its clarity of composition, and the choice of animal is probably a jaguar or puma - both of which were revered by Andean cultures. In many descriptions, these bags were used to hold coca leaves.
Woven from lustrous Alpaca wool, this trapezoidal bag (above, right) from Peru or Chile was clearly made to be worn. Long tassels hang from the bag, which would have looked impressive as the wearer walked or rode. The geometric patterning is limited to vertical bands which stripe the front, creating a restrained contrast between pattern and block color.
Tapestry weave produces strong, durable textiles and was consequently a preferred technique when creating bags. Weaving a resilient textile did not require compromising on elegance however, as shown by this rare and early fragment of a Peruvian bag (above), or ch’upsa, used for holding coca leaves. Birds, animals and flowers are woven in frieze-like bands, depicted with precision and creativity. Dating from as early as the 16th century, it provides a rare insight into the accoutrements of the Peruvian elite in this period.
A ‘torba’ is a type of shallow tent bag used by the Turkmen tribes. This early Salor example (above) from the Neville and Elizabeth Kingston Collection dates to the 18th century. Bags often shared the same motifs as were used in rugs and carpets, and here the composition is dominated by the classic ‘Memling gul’. That the German renaissance artist Hans Memling’s name should remain the term for a symbol seems surprising when one takes a moment to consider the context in which this tent bag would have been used. It would have been displayed as an item of prestige, demonstrating wealth and tribal affiliation, either in the family’s tent or on the move with their caravan through remote regions of Central Asia.
For the tribal confederations of Iran, the bag as an object offers an insight into an entire culture. Tents, salt, bedding, spindles and many other objects each had their own special bag; a fascinating range of textiles which combine utility with design and continue to entrance collectors to this day.
Bags were an essential part of transhumant or nomadic life, and they had to be sturdy. Special weaving techniques ensured that woven bags could withstand long journeys. Chief amongst them is the sumakh weave, used in this Shahsavan double saddlebag (khorjin). The strong geometric shapes generated by the weaving technique also helped to create bold, graphic designs well attuned to show the skill of the women in a household.
This ‘khorjin’ represents one half of a saddlebag set used by the pastoralist and nomadic tribes of south Iran. As the saddlebag was thrown over the camel or horse, a panel hung down on either side, offering a perfect canvas for a woman to show her weaving skill.
This example (above, left) from Khamseh, to the south of the Caspian Sea, is part of the exceptional collection of Michael and Amy Rothberg and possesses an exuberant spirit created by freewheeling, unexpected changes of design within a small space. Three separate patterns are included in the composition: ‘animal head’ symbols on the bottom row, geometric florals in the centre, and a totemistic figure with pairs of birds’ heads at the top.
The small scale of many bags allowed weavers to experiment with the size and arrangement of motifs, perhaps with more freedom than when weaving a full-scale rug. Here (above, right), the whole design revolves around a central gul, creating a vortex-like visual effect. The making of bags, covers, straps and bands was an important aspect of the role played by women in the family unit, as these weavings were vital in terms of daily life and also in conveying the skills and resources of a family. They were also a means of displaying wealth, kinship and tribal affiliation both within a tented enclosure and while on migration.
Birds – highly symbolic creatures - are a recurring motif amongst Persian tribal textiles. Many of these so-called ‘bird’ bags depict a peacock with elaborate tail feathers, and the genre cuts across all weaving areas of the Baluch tribes since woven technique, arrangement of the birds, colours and borders vary hugely. This example (above) champions the use of the restricted color palette available in the Khorasan region, and has a remarkable number of birds depicted, thirty-one and a half in total in staggered rows.
Animals appear again, marching across the panels of these flatwoven double-bags (above) used to store flour (perhaps accounting for the beautiful cream ground). Look closely at this intricate example from the Bakhtiari tribe and it is possible to see birds, and more complex double-headed, four-legged creatures, perhaps deriving from the ancient ‘confronted animal’ motif. Here there is a clear visual contrast between the soft, woven wool, and the geometric sharpness allowed by the sumakh technique.
This elegant English work bag (above) in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is dated to 1669. Wool embroidery decorates the linen ground, and while the border is adapted from 16th-century European pattern books, the flowers, insects, animals and people are characteristic of 17th-century British embroidery.
Fittingly, it would have been used to contain the tools required for embroidery, one of the skills required of an educated girl in the 17th century. It is interesting to note that while many of the products made using the contents of such bags are known, collected and admired, there are few surviving examples of the actual bags worked in as much detail as can be seen in this example.
This woven bag from Angola or the Democratic Republic of Congo (above, left) represents yet another textile fabric: raffia-fibre. It would have formed part of the king’s regalia, along with a throne, chests containing the relics of previous kings and three metal bangles. This finely woven bag would have held nkisi, items containing or possessing the power of spirits.
Indian kantha quilts (above, right), made up from fragments of old saris by Bengali women, are well recorded. Bags or pouches are much less known, but a group of thirty-five in the Karun Thakar Collection shows that this embroidery tradition was used for items beyond quilts and covers. The restricted colour palette seen in this example from West Bengal or Bangladesh is typically associated with pieces from the 19th century.