I first came across a reference to walnut purses on the Weald and Downland Museum site. They were described as "Elizabethan Walnuts"; little drawstring bags made from covered walnut shells given as gifts in the time of Elizabeth I. This was enough to peak my interest.
It's been surprisingly difficult to find much solid information about 16th/17th century novelty purses made from walnut shells. I was able to find a modern kit for making these (see Stef Francis), but very little about historical examples. Eventually, persistance did pay off and I was able to find the following examples.
Here's an excerpt (I make no promises about the time period of the purse that is described) from the Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 1865 By British Archaeological Association:
"we find mention in the curious Chapman's Inventory, dated 1626, printed by Mr Hopper in our last volume, p 259, where we read, "Item 8 walnott purses at 2s." Now this title might be given to a minute purse held in a walnut shell like a pair of Limerick gloves, but I have seen an old purse, the lower part of which was the half a walnut shell, the lining and upper portion being of blue silk, the mouth drawn together by a long cord, and looking much like a little reticule."Examples
Hunt Museum Walnut Purse - no date, but possibly French. (scroll to the bottom of the Hunt search page for the picture)
V&A Walnut Purse - dated to 1600-1650; covered in silk, embellished with metal thread, lined with silk.
Museum of London Walnut Purse - no picture, but Linda Tudor references it in her book Embroidered Purses: Design & Techniques as covered in silk and decorated with seed pearls and coral beads.
I had a surprisingly difficult time finding walnut shells, so I ended up ordering a pound of walnuts in the shell and cracking my own. My rate of perfect half shells was maybe 25%. Anyhow, the shell halves are covered and lined in the same fine silk. My method for covering them was to run a loose gathering stitch around a circle of the silk and then stitch like crazy to hold everything in place (iow, I faked it). It seem to have worked well enough, but I'm not sure I could or would repeat it.
The embroidery is done in silk, and I'm pleased with the wreath (this purse was made for a friend as a Laureling gift), but the flower shows that the thread I was using is too heavy for the level of detail I was attempting. I guess this is why embroidery is not my strength. The purse string is simply threaded through the outer silk fabric covering and is a pattern taken from Take V Bowes Departed. The hinge was made from a series of running stiches to create a ladder (widening toward the top) and covered with open button hole stiches.
Overall, I'm pleased with the way it turned out, but I need to practice my embroidery and my biggest regret is using a red nylon thread to stich the silk covering (what was I thinking?). I guess it makes it easy to see the construction, but I don't recommend it. I tried to base my construction from the details I could glean from the examples listed above (I even managed to find a small, black and white picture of the V&A Walnut Purst).References