Bog body crafts: Gunnister Purse

This is a project I completed before Christmas, but it's a good introduction to my interests... history with a side of weird and morbid. I've been fascinated by bog bodies since I was little, and the Boston Science Museum did an exhibit on peat bogs. I remember being terrified of the preserved body on display, and obsessed with a live play where a woman portrayed the bogman's daughter. I watched it loads of times and would go home and act it out, standing on the sofa and yelling, "bog burst! bog burst!" Anyway, I was a cool kid with lots of friends...

Fast forward to last year, when I had to write a paper about the intersections between textile history and scientific analysis, so I decided to write about bog bodies, because they often come with exceptionally well-preserved textile specimens. One example I wrote about was the Gunnister Man, found in Shetland in 1951. In this case, the body was not well preserved, leaving only skeletal remains, but his clothing was. Peat bogs preserve animal fibres, such as wool, but completely dissolve plant fibres, such as linen. Therefore, what was found were his wool waistcoat, coat, and breeches, along with knitwear, including stockings, gloves, and a purse. Many more details about the original garments, and the Shetland Museum's project of recreating them, can be found on the Costume Historian. I was super excited to find a free kitting pattern on Ravelry to recreate the purse, so of course I had a go!

Supplies! Pattern, yarn, and tiny tiny needles.

I got undyed grey Shetland Heritage yarn for the main body, which is designed to recreate traditional hand-spun yarns used in Fair Isle knitting. For the red, I used wool that I originally got for the lacing cord on my medieval gown (future blog post!), and the white is a random small ball I found in a charity shop because I only needed a tiny amount. There are limits to my commitment to authenticity.

This is definitely the smallest gauge thing I've ever knitted (mine is just about the original gauge of 4.5 stitches and 6 rows per cm) and oh my god was it a nuisance to get started. The crochet loops in the first row, which the drawstring threads through, were definitely the most annoying, and the Shetland yarn is very loosely spun so it was easy to put the needle through the middle of the yarn instead of through a loop. It may also have been my mistake trying to start it while on a dance weekend, so I was sleep deprived and distracted. That definitely resulted in my trying to knit on the bus home and accidentally pulling all the minuscule stitches off one needle in a moment of sleep-deprived lunacy and nearly giving up in despair. Interestingly, the pattern noted that it corrected some inconsistencies in the original, such as variations in the number of knit and purl stitches in the ribbing. I felt a bit torn about trying to make the project more standardised, in accordance with modern knitting conventions. As it turned out, I made some mistakes in this part of the purse myself, so mine ended up being as inconsistent as the original! I like the think that whoever knitted it in the past might have been cursing in annoyance just as much as I was.

The original purse, from the National Museums Scotland. Dye analysis revealed the original colours to be grey, red, and white.

My finished replica! I'm hoping if I leave it in a bog for 300 years it will look exactly the same.
The original was dated to c. 1700 based on the coins found in it, which is not a time period that I currently recreate. However, small knitted purses such as this were in use for hundreds of years, and I hope to track down some images of similar ones from different eras. Stay tuned!

Final bog body story... there was a man who the police suspected of murdering his wife, but they couldn't find enough evidence to charge him. One day, workers digging peat near his home discovered a body, and he immediately confessed to the murder. Then it turned out that the body found was hundreds of years old. Oops!

Shetland Museum:

National Museum Scotland:


  1. Nice, all around. Stories, project, everything. :)


  2. How cool! Bog bodies are so fascinating! I always love finding imperfect details in historic garments, like unmatched patterns at seams. It makes the original creator so much more human :) Your purse looks great!

    1. Thank you! I know, and it makes me feel so much better about my inevitable errors- I'm just being historically accurate!

  3. I remember you galavanting about singing Gilbert & Sullivan ditties, in costume from the dress-up box. Never heard about your unhealthy obsession with bogs and their dessicated bodies.
    So ... what's a "bog burst"?

    1. Hmm, I guess you managed to miss that delightful part of my childhood! A bog burst is essentially when a bog becomes saturated with water and overflows its usual bounds, which can happen quite suddenly and be hazardous if you're nearby.

  4. Meant to add: my own work of late has spawned all manner of research projects - including an investigation of Jomon (Japanese prehistoric) textile culture. I've focused on the design elements rather than fiber content (but then, I'm an artist, looking for artistic inspiration and reference). After reading your post, however, I'm going to have to figure out why the extant flax specimens survived. And make as second garment in linen now that a woolen version is off the loom and ready for sewing. Brava!

    1. This sounds fascinating! I'd be interested to know how the prehistoric flax fibres were preserved, and to see what you end up making!


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