Charitably Chic: The Eighteenth-Century Alms Purse

An unlikely fashion archetype emerged in France between the late seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries. Several fashion plates of the era depict la jeune dame qui quête (the young lady who collects), a debutante chosen to collect alms for the poor at mass. The ceremony depicted in these images was not just any mass but the Sunday mass held in the Royal Chapel at Versailles in the presence of the king and queen. Virtually all of these fashion plates, regardless of date, show the quêteuse (alms collector) carrying a round, embellished drawstring purse of silk or velvet known as an alms purse or bourse de quêteuse.

The chance to collect alms was an important rite of passage for a young noblewoman, and surviving depictions and eyewitness accounts indicate that the honor generally went to the most beautiful and fashionable young women of the court. Louise Julie de La Tour d’Auvergne, Princesse de Montbazon (1679–1750), for example, was described as being “young and beautiful, and in every way well fitted to perform the part.” Indeed, it was generally assumed that the more attractive the quêteuse, the more generous the congregation would be. A 1788 dictionary bluntly stated: “A quéteûse, who is pretty, collects a lot of money.”

Alms Purse

The simply stunning Alms Purse. Becky Quine worked delicate floral embroidery on silk fabric. This view shows two of the four panels on the purse. Photo by Joe Coca.


Becky Quine, who studied at the Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court Palace, designed the alms purse shown above. She explains the inspiration for her embroidered Alms Purse:

    “Eighteenth-century ecclesiastical vestments were the inspiration for this project, although I had to modify the motifs so that they would work on this smaller-scale object. I chose to use flowers because they often have religious symbolism. While I tried for authenticity in my choice of materials and stitches, cost and availability dictated certain substitutions, for example, stranded cotton floss instead of silk threads and stranded metallic thread instead of smooth passing thread.”

Find the instructions for Becky Quine’s “An Alms Purse to Embroider” and learn more about alms purses by reading the rest of Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell’s article, “Charitably Chic: The Eighteenth-Century Alms Purse,” in PieceWork’s September/October 2013 issue.

Dreaming of taking a class at the Royal School of Needlework in Great Britain? This year, they’re hoping the pond and will host a Summer School in Lexington, Kentucky, from July 8–21, 2018. Bookings open January 15th. Visit their website for more details.


Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is a Los Angeles–based costume and textile historian; she is a former research scholar in Costume and Textiles at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and curatorial fellow at the Huntington Library. Her work has been published in Ornament, Costume, Textile History, Dress, Huntington Frontiers, and Eighteenth-Century Studies, as well as in PieceWork. She also contributes to Slate.com and wornthrough.com.

Becky Quine’s first exposure to needlecraft was learning cross-stitch at an early age. She dabbled in paper crafting, then added knitting and crochet to her repertoire. Discovering the Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court Palace in Surrey, England, she tried a few day classes, starting with Goldwork, enrolled in the Certificate program, and is now a student in the Future Tutors program. She spent the next two-and-a-half years learning different stitching techniques before being unleashed on the stitching world.


Learn more about traditional embroidery in PieceWork!

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