A Love Affair with Beaded Purses

My love of beaded purses began in my teens, with a small, flapper-style fringed bag that I found hiding in the bottom of Grandma's cedar chest. I had always been attracted to beads, especially seed beads, but viewed them only as a supply that jewelry-makers used to create necklaces and earrings. The idea of a purse, made totally with beads, was intriguing. A few years later, a friend's mother gave me a 1950's beaded sweater, and I was again fascinated with the beauty of the beads and the rich vintage design. In college, I rummaged through local thrift shops for vintage sweaters, beaded bags, and other goodies, most of which needed repair. I discovered how to mend the numerous moth holes in beaded wool sweaters, and how to wash and lay them flat so the holes were undetectable. My ability to repair antique and vintage clothing turned into extra college income when the owner of a local vintage clothing shop agreed to let me take special pieces home and repair them. Most repairs paid only $5-10, but as a sideline, the extra money bought meals and clothes.

The shop owner, Patty Fairbanks, invited me along to work at her booth spaces at flea markets in Lakewood, Georgia, and Charlotte, North Carolina. These large shows attracted beaded purse dealers, who offered exquisite bags with landscape scenes, figurals, and floral designs rendered entirely in beads. The bead sizes spanned a huge range, from Deco-era size 0/11 hex-cuts, to the tiny size 0/24 Czech beads that are no longer produced. I had never seen such magnificent works of art, made from luminous glass specs of color, joined together to create fabrics of solid beads. To me, the purses were even more beautiful than paintings, because the medium was so rich and variable, and the detail and execution more calculated and precise. I could not fathom the hours it would have taken to create such intricate items by hand, and felt deep respect for those who had created such masterpieces.

As a financially challenged college student, I could not afford those impressive scenic purses, so I began by collecting bags with larger beads and less intricate designs. They often needed repairs- fringes restored, lost beading replaced- and I experimented with various techniques. I observed fringe patterns on bags and began creating my own designs, attempting to preserve the antique styling of each purse I repaired. To repair holes in knitted bags, I studied the bag construction carefully and experimented by entering the rows of existing beads, using thin English beading needles. I counted the number of missing beads in each row, matched them closely in color and size, and threaded them into the hole in the row, then brought the needle and thread through several beads on the other side of the hole. If more than five or six beads in a row were missing, someone advised me to back the hole with fabric, to stabilize the area. One of my best finds was the discovery of a bead supplier that sells antique seed beads, purchased from a warehouse that had been sealed since WWI. I began buying small packets of antique beads and beading needles, and practicing my repair techniques on inexpensive flea market bags.

Over the years, I've tried making a few purses, but I much prefer knitted or bead-embroidered antique bags to my crude, woven replications. As my repair techniques improved, and my personal stock of antique beads grew, I was able to purchase more desirable purses, with more intricate designs, that had holes or missing areas of beading. Once restored, these bags are worth considerably more money than before. During this time, in the late 1980's, beaded purse collecting became more popular, and good bags were becoming harder to find at antique malls and flea markets. Whenever my then-husband and I would travel between Kentucky and Florida, I would run through the antique malls along the interstates, and browse for purses. Over the years, I have acquired about forty purses that are very special to me. Among my favorites is a large bag that has a rug design on the border, roses in the middle, and a landscape design of a castle in the center of the purse. Another interesting handbag features a portrait of an Oriental man, in his traditional garments, seated in an elaborate chair.

Ebay online auctions changed everything for me, in terms of collecting and restoring purses. I discovered a world of people and purses more vast than anything I found in over fifteen years of scouring through antique malls around the country. Now I can run through the listings of beaded purses on Ebay, and in thirty minutes, see more wonderful bags than I would have found in several years of traveling and searching. However, most of the purses are in need of repair. It is rare to find a mint condition, pristine purse listed on Ebay, and if so, it sells for a premium.

This past year, my father created a web site for me, which showcases before- and after photos of purse repairs. I have had the good fortune to become acquainted with a long-standing expert in purse repair, Jackie Smith, who refers customers to my web site through her own, and is kind enough to indulge my questions when I encounter an unusually challenging purse dilemma.

The response to my repair services has been amazing. I was unaware that there are only a few people in the country who offer professional antique purse restoration, and they were working at full capacity already. The collectors are a loyal, dedicated bunch, who seem to know one another through a loose networking structure of Ebay transactions, email questions to each other, collectors' clubs, and dealer connections. Word of the repair service has spread, and in a short time I have amassed a waiting list of up to two months.

Antique purses are a beautiful example of a lost art form that belonged to a simpler time, when ladies sat beneath shade trees, bead-knitted, and traded stories. The purses depict a fascinating range of subjects- Egyptology, floral displays, harps, lovers, deer, hunters, funeral urns, ships, castles, and rug designs. Abstract purses capture the Deco and flapper-era styles, and primitive reticules have a special look that is instantly recognizable. Some collectors specialize in categories of design, and collect particular styles or animals, such as beaded purses with bird designs, or with horses. Others may collect special purse frame constructions, such as Bakelite framed purses. The most coveted purses feature spectacular jeweled frames, set with semi-precious stones, and constructed from tiny seed beads (which some choose to call "micro-beaded", an unofficial and often misused term) and spectacularly intricate landscape or figural scenes.

When starting a collection, begin with what you can afford. The best purses go for upward of $2,000, so you might look for a nice bead-embroidered landscape scene, or knitted floral, for $300-500. Some collectors prefer metal-beaded purses, such as the French steel beaded bags, which average in the $200-400 range. Others will only consider bead-knitted purses with jeweled frames. There are so many different possibilities in purse collecting that we are only limited by our budget, preferences for beauty, and capacity to repair damages. I've included some simple repair tips that will get you started, should you decide to begin repairing beaded bags. Best wishes in your journey to find wonderful purses of your own!