Martyn Downer’s book, Nelson’ Purse (Corgi Books, 2004) tells the story of a museum or antique professional’s let alone an historian’s dream. A collection that “was not a lost collection because no-one had ever looked for it or missed it” (page 56) comes to light and within it is discovered objects that prove to be of extraordinary historical value including the green purse featured on the cover of the book.
The appeal for me lies in the history (my specialty being the late 18th century/early 19th century with a serious interest in British naval history) as well as the creation of the purse which I have reproduced. It is described as “’Nelson’s pocket purse’…made of woven green silk…” (page 40) and “about 12 inches long and shaped like a tube with a tassel on either end. Coins entered it through a 2-inch horizontal slit halfway along. Two steel rings, each apparently covered in fine strands of hair, were then evidently slid down to the ends of the purse, gathering the material and capturing the contents.” (page 56)
In Appendix I, the author theorises that the purse may have been knit by Fanny Nelson. Allow me at this point to recommend Frances, Lady Nelson – the Life and Times of an Admirable Wife by Sheila Hardy, (Spellmount, Staplehurst, 2005.) Working with letters discovered in 2001 from Fanny Nelson to her husband’s agent, Alexander Davison, Ms. Hardy presents a very different woman from the one previously portrayed in books and on film. There is, however, no mention of knitting purses in this biography but that does not mean that Fanny Nelson might not have knitted the purse in question. In his book, however, Mr. Downer variously describes the purse as knitted, netted, and woven without regard to the fact that these are three very different techniques. I have also received a suggestion that the technique used was nålbinding which raises another interesting set of questions as to its origin. If Fanny Nelson did knit the purse, Mr. Downer suggests that she may have “purchased the necessary silk, or ‘twist’, from Thomas Gardom who owned a shop on St James’s Street which specialized in ‘Purse-Twist, Tassels and sliders’.” (page 465) Another, blue, purse of “doubtful provenance” is also discussed on pages 466-467.
Working with the measurements from the book and by counting the stitches on the purse in the two available photographs as best I could, I was able to reproduce the purse using approximately six skeins of dark green DMC Anchor Pearl Cotton Size 5 on 2.50mm needles, knit in garter stitch in the round, at 7 stitches/inch. It is very difficult to find knitting silk let alone affordable knitting silk. I am, therefore, not satisfied with the result using this cotton as it feels rather bulky. I could not find appropriate metal rings so I used plastic ones, wrapped with dark brown DMC Mouline Special embroidery floss to mimic silk although the rings on Nelson’s purse were wrapped with hair. What Downer calls tassels appears to me to be very small pompoms with curled ends, probably the natural twist of the silk. My pompoms do not, unfortunately, have that attractive twist.
Another purse was knit in stocking/stockinette stitch in nine colours of DMC Anchor Pearl Cotton, Size 5 at 7 stitches/inch also on 2.50mm needles. The plastic rings are covered in silver DMC Mouline Special embroidery floss. I am not fond of jewelry or hanging beads so I did not use either for the ends as was commonly done. I did, however, find a reference to thread ends on page 144 in Labors of Love by Judith Reiter Weissman and Wendy Lavitt (Alfred A. Knopf, 1987) and the ones on this purse are simple knots and tassels. I am currently working on two more purses using the thinner DMC Mouline Special embroidery floss, the challenge being to create a purse with the sheen of silk while not obscuring the delicate patterns by knitting with fine needles and thread.
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