Exterior of Nancy Nicholas Hall in the evening, with lamps and windows glowing.
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Textile Tuesday: Mesh Purse

Mesh purse, metal chain link, United States, early 20th century

Shelby Orcutt is a student in the School of Human Ecology, majoring in Textiles and Fashion Design.

The artifact that I choose from the collection is a petite mesh bag from the United States dated from the early 20th century. I was so drawn to this bag because I am really interested in accessory design, and this purse is very intricate. The bag is made up of very small interconnected chain links that are slightly bigger than the tip of an embroidery needle. I think this is one of the most fascinating things about the bag;coming from a person who has done a lot of beadwork and embroidery, I recognize how much labor was involved in this type of work when it was done by hand, and also why there was a drive to mechanize this process.

Textile Tuesday Mesh Purse Closeup

In this case, the Textile Collection did not yet have a lot of information about the mesh bag, but through some research I may have found the company that made this bag. A company called Whiting & Davis, which still exists today, is famous for its mesh handbags. Their first mesh handbag was created in 1892, and it was completely handmade by local women who worked on linking 1,000 of those tiny rings a day. After realizing how time consuming the work was, they were able to invent a machine that could produce 400,000 links a day in varying sizes. Therefore in the late 1920s the bags became less expensive to appeal to more customers, and painted mesh bags became increasingly popular. The fine mesh bags, such as this one from the collection, were made with softer hues and they were all colored through silk screening (Wiggins 2018).

Through these descriptions it is my best guess is that Whiting and Davis is the producer of this purse.Through my research I was able to get a lot of my questions about this purse answered. When studying this purse you notice that the flowered pattern on it is slightly muted and fuzzy, which made me wonder if the rings were painted before it was assembled or after. If the bag is in fact a Whiting & Davis bag then we know that it was painted after assembly through this silk screening process. My other question was about whether the bag was handmade or not, and we can’t be totally sure whether it was or not. The first bags produced were in fact handmade but this bag may be from a later time period meaning it was most likely made by one of these machines.

Textile Tuesday Mesh Purse Closeup

Another aspect that I thought was particularly interesting about this bag is whether or not it is truly functional. The claps that form the top of the bag are very heavy in comparison to the dainty chain that is used as the handle. Most likely if someone were to use this bag, the chain would break under the weight of the rest of the bag. The bag is a very light floral pattern whereas the clasp gives a much heavier and more structural feel. The style of the clasp and the chain seem as though they are from a different time period than the body of the bag, so they may have been a later addition or repair. Overall I was drawn to this bag because of its unique style and structure as well as the intricate work that wentinto creating it.

Discover more about this piece here.

#TextileTuesday is a yearlong series celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection.

HLATC 50th anniversary logo

In 2019, the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Human Ecology launched a yearlong anniversary celebration of the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection. Over the past half century, the collection has grown from an original 4,000-piece gift to more than 13,000 objects that have inspired and informed thousands of students, researchers, historians, and textile aficionados. The 50-year celebration began on January 27, 2019, with the opening of new Lynn Mecklenburg Textile Gallery, a space dedicated to year-round displays of the collections. Activities continue into 2019 with a calendar of public exhibitions, symposia, lectures, and public workshops.