Portrait of an Embroidered Purse

A Conversation with Christina Bevilacqua

“It probably started out as something fairly simple, and then it got more and more intricate. . . . I loved to stay up all night, so I think it was probably that.” Christina Bevilacqua, an accomplished milliner and entrepreneur and the current Programs and Exhibitions Director at the Providence Public Library, holds a small denim purse she richly embroidered in the 1970s while she was growing up in Richmond, Virginia. One of the powers of a handmade object is its tendency to prompt memories from the craftsperson who made it. On October 7, 2020, Bevilacqua met with Kate Irvin (curator and head of the Costume and Textiles department at the RISD Museum) and me to share stories about the purse, a recent acquisition of the RISD Museum. 

A few years ago Bevilacqua found herself going through boxes of old belongings as her mother prepared to sell her house. “Finally all the boxes that were mine and my brothers’ in the basement—we were forced to remove them after 20 years of [her] begging. So I brought them home.” It was in one of these boxes that she came across the embroidered purse, and with it a flood of memories from the 1970s. “I had a pair of jeans that wore out and I cut, because, you know, the knees had giant holes, and I wanted to make a jean skirt. So I cut them off at the knees and then put panels in and made a skirt, but then I kept the bottom part, and that’s what I made this [purse] out of!” Bevilacqua describes the purse as kind of a self-portrait or a snapshot of who she was at 14—a “funny illustration of my own personality . . . I did not like being told what to do and I wanted to be able to do everything very independently. But in another way, it’s so regimented.” Bevilacqua considered the genesis of the circular motif featured on each side of the purse, and interpreted it as representative of the all-consuming process that compelled her to embroider after-hours. Embroidered on denim fabric and lined with red bandana cotton paisley fabric, each side of the purse features an abstract circular embroidered form, bordered by a zig-zag stitch of many colors. “It’s freeform in that it’s not following a pattern but it’s so symmetrical, it’s bordered. And I do remember that I was totally making it up as I went along.”

Color photograph, a close-up of a small denim purse with rainbow embroidery in a radial pattern. The photograph is outside, and the purse is held by a white woman in a blue floral dress. We only see her hands and torso.

Photo by Ariel Wills.

Bevilacqua’s enjoyment of any practice involving textiles is enriched by memories of her grandmothers. “I learned from both of my grandmothers to sew and to embroider and I mostly embroidered things at their houses when I would be there in the summer. They lived in two totally different places, but my family moved almost every year, and we would get planted with my grandparents over the summer while my parents found new houses. So I spent a lot of time with my grandmothers and they would mostly give me pillowcases with already printed pictures that I would embroider. They were basically all scenes from martyred saints’ lives [laughing]. Sometimes some had flowers and stuff, but I just remember a lot of like, children who had seen visions of the Virgin Mary.” 

Bevilacqua speaks fondly of her childhood rebellions as she describes another pair of old jeans upon which she had embroidered flowers and the words “god is a girl,” intentionally writing the G in the word god with lowercase in the hopes of irritating the grown-ups. Upon further reflection she added, “While it was partly provocation that was typical of an adolescent, I think that like the phrase on my jeans, the bag is not only a portrait of me at that time, but also of that time itself. . . . When I found it, I felt like I was looking at a time capsule of the culture. . . . The reuse of jeans, the “going back to handmade” embroidery, and even the bandanna, the ‘god is a girl’ reflected very much the time and place. I was in an experimental high school started by hippies, and the women’s movement, the Black Power movement, gay rights, the antiwar movement, the upheaval of Watergate were all very much on my mind every day, in part because I was at a questioning age and going to a school filled with teachers and students who held very counterculturalist views and who were very politically engaged—and all of it taking place in the middle of the Capital of the Confederacy.” 

Sewing was a major part of the lives of both of Christina’s grandmothers, whose sewing skills played an essential role in each of their families and who both used treadle sewing machines, which were manually powered with a pedal. After working with needle and thread with enthusiasm in her childhood and through college, Bevilacqua didn’t sew again until she started working as a milliner around the 1990s when she began her own business in New York City making hats. She muses maybe there’s another sewing renaissance around the corner for her: “Now I have great-nieces and nephews, so now I think I have to start sewing for them!” 

Color pencil drawing of a middle aged white woman in a bright blue dress and sunglasses holding a colorfully embroidered small purse. She is standing; the image extends to her knees.

Drawing by Ariel Wills.

The allure of the handmade object as explored in dialogue with the artist-craftsperson is a dynamic and gratifying exchange and is an experience I often seek out for my own work and research. I’m a graduate student at Rhode Island School of Design in the Nature–Culture–Sustainability Studies program, and my thesis is an interdisciplinary work that centers non-written and non-verbal forms of history embedded within the handmade, and how history is written and passed on through handmade practices. 

In my own studio practice, I address questions of identity and diaspora, sharing textures from my lived experience as a Latina Jewish woman as well as my longing for belonging from within an identity that doesn’t fit into the borders of any country. Terms defining nationality, heritage, and religion are important tools, yet they can be limiting in what they're able to express about the totality of identity. I hope to communicate the small defining moments and characteristics that shape my individuality: the smell of my mother’s chicken soup on the stove, finally learning Spanish in college, sewing doll clothes the way my great-great-grandmother did. I follow the remaining threads of family and cultural history, and in this exploration, I find in these identities. I carry my identities and the legacy of my people in my creative praxis—each time I happen across a story with potential intersection with my heritage, I find the delicious impetus to create more work.

Currently, I’m investigating hidden stories of items in the RISD Museum collection, using the process of research and drawing as modes of understanding. Works like Bevilacqua’s purse become vehicles to learn about the human condition by examining the techniques of craftsmanship, choice of materials, and social history. 

Ariel Wills is a graduate fellow in the Costume and Textiles department of the RISD Museum. She holds a BA in Humanities with concentrations in Spanish, Dance, and Studio Arts from the University of Oregon and has worked and studied internationally in Mexico, Israel, and Spain.