Monday, 22 July 2019


What is it about old ladies and handbags!?

At earlier points in my life, I've visited an old ladies in hospital, or taken an old lady there, and in every case she would clutch her handbag tight, get anxious if it got misplaced. The handbag was really important.

I have even, on one occasion, needed to check the contents of a handbag belonging to an old lady in hospital, and found in it only a mouldy peach. 

But now that I am also becoming an old lady, I understand. 

One of our household asked me at breakfast time, "Are you going out?" I wondered why for a moment, then realised it was because I had my handbag nearby. And, no, I wasn't going anywhere — I just needed the things in it, on and off throughout the day in all the different places I might be.

My handbag is smaller than the ones I used to have. When my children were little it had to contain wet-wipes and jelly-babies and a book to look at and a cotton muslin and so on.  Then, as life moved on, I needed a bag sizeable enough to contain an A5 writing pad, one pen and a spare, my Filofax, usually speaking notes and a folder relating to whatever I was going to, and a make-up pouch, as well as all the usual handbag things. So I used to have a shopping-bag sized handbag!

Now those days have gone, and I no longer need a large bag.

I like either leather or canvas bags, and of the two options I prefer leather, because I think it looks more suitable at a formal event (but is equally fine for everyday), and is easier to clean.

I prefer to buy bags second-hand, to (albeit minutely) slow down our pervasive problem of mass-production, and to obtain a nice item within budget, and to take my custom to a down-sizing woman at home making a little money. Also, I often change my mind a couple of months after a purchase, and want something different. If I paid £4 for my bag that doesn't matter very much; a very different story if I'd paid £400 or even £40 for it. I bought my current one on eBay for £15.00 in February.

My bag is very dark green. I really love green and red for bag colours, as they surprisingly go with almost everything — I have navy, grey, black, burgundy and green clothes, and I thought the dark green would look nice with any of them. Plus, I think dark green is beautiful.

I dislike a lot of accoutrements on bags — buckles and catches, tassels and tags, chains and zips and metal linking rings. I don't like long dangling straps, or those doubled-over straps that let you vary the length between a shoulder bag and a cross-body style. The muddly appearance irritates me.  

I also dislike grab bags — I have to wear my bag on my shoulder. I do like the appearance of grab bags, but my hyper-mobility means my blood tends to pool, and I get very uncomfortable if my hand is down by my side unsupported for any length of time (eg, holding a bag by its handles). If my bag is on my shoulder, I can tuck my thumb round the strap as I'm walking along, which helps my blood do its thing and stops my hands swelling up. 

I like to be able to clamp my bag firmly under my arm, for security. I am never easy with those back-packs where the small compartment for your purse, tickets, phone etc, sits on the outside, behind you where you can't see. I think those new backpacks where the access is on the inner side against your back are a wise security improvement — though it makes it harder to get at your stuff. For me, the ideal when travelling is the hands-free combo of a backpack with nothing in it worth stealing, and a small pack (bum bag, fanny pack, money belt, whatever) with my money and tickets, glasses and phone strapped onto my front.

So my current handbag looks like this —

Here's what it has inside (plus the phone I was using to take the photo) —

I got those two fold-up nylon shoppers at Sainsbury's, and they are excellent. For one thing they're capacious and take plenty of groceries, but also they have the good strong integral handles, not the thin stitched-on ones that cut into your hands when the bag is full.

I carry two pairs of glasses with me always, everywhere — one for just looking at things and one for inspecting small print on labels carefully.  

My bag is the perfect size for me. It slips down beside me in an armchair, and between my pillows and my husband's pillows if I'm sitting on our bed reading or writing. It's unobtrusive and the handle isn't the sort that trips people up if I put it on the floor by my chair. It isn't heavy, its design is simple and classic with no ornamentation, it's well-made and I find it attractive.

In some ways I like the idea of having a backpack for my main bag, but for two things — I don't like the way backpacks are infested with straps like an octopus's tentacles, dangling all over the place, and much of the time I want something small and neat rather than large and capacious. The great thing about a small, slim, flat shoulder bag is that the (also small, slim, flat) shopping bags can sit folded up inside all the while you don't actually need to use them.

So in my bag I carry my two pairs of glasses, the two nylon shoppers, a small coin purse, my phone, my rail card in its handy ticket wallet, my house and car keys, a pen, and my cards (a debit card, a emergency car rescue card for if we break down, my do-not-resuscitate card which also lets my organs be harvested, and my two store loyalty cards).

I find I need to use all these things very frequently (well — not the do-not-resuscitate card so far, but everything else), and hardly ever need anything more. So I keep my handbag by me wherever I am stationed indoors, and take it out with me wherever I go.

I do have one other, a canvas shoulder bag, which is handy for when I'm preaching — I can put my handbag inside it alongside the folder containing my notes and whatever I've brought for bored children to do.

What about you? I bet you have strong preferences for bags as well!


Anonymous said...

H Penelope,
I do have strong preferences, and as of yet have not found the perfect bag! I want it to stand up by itself so that when I set it down it will remain upright and nothing falls out. I want it to have more than one inside zipper compartment for small/flat important things (cash, or a single key or a card or ticket, something that I need to grab quickly and not have to paw through belongings to find). I prefer cross body bags, I have sloping shoulders so the handle has to be long enough to stay up on me. I'm often carrying a laptop bag as well so both will need to be on me and often in a stacking configuration from the car to the building and back again, so slimmer is a better profile. I was carrying an olive green leather (loved it!) bucket style bag but it swallowed up my belongings and started to make me feel muddled and disorganized so I went back to one I had set aside years ago and forgotten. It stands up nicely and has a long enough handle, it could be just a bit wider as it doesn't fit a hair brush and my current style needs one. It has a magnetic catch in a crucial spot that is not as sturdy as it could be, so that's disappointing. It's vinyl,nice quality, but I would prefer leather. It's black with brown trim so it looks tidy with my black laptop case. I like to feel at least a bit put together as my entering the building may be the first impression I make on those who may be my new clients.
I don't want their first impression to be that I could be inadequate to that task of my helping profession! A separate bag for when I'm not working would solve that, and be fun but impractical, too much switching things back and forth leading to more disorganization and losing things. I have begun to stash doubles of needful things at work so I don't have to carry things back and forth in my purse. I have a brush and a makeup case that I keep there now. So perfect purse would be leather, (but would it stand up as nicely as the vinyl does?) cross body/long handle, secure closure, wide but not too wide, enough inner compartments...

Pen Wilcock said...

Ha! It sounds to me as though you are hot on the trail, nicely narrowing down your requirements. You will know it when you see it. Or, you may be the first person to change her hairstyle to accommodate the specifications of her handbag!

greta said...

perfect bag? here's a link to mine: it is the only bag that i have and i love it. my cousin had this bag which i greatly admired. when i found it on amazon, it was at a deep discount so it didn't cost much at all. my bag is charcoal grey, goes everywhere with me, has pockets for everything that i need to carry and is washable! who could ask for more?

Suzan said...

I have long been on the quest for a bag that suits me perfectly. I have decided that leather is my preference. I have had synthetic leather bags that have died after a very short space of time. Like you I am so pleased I need not carry many items now. when I need a bigger bag I have several patch work bags with embroidery that I just adore. Currently I try to carry my purse with cards and a handy Swiss army knife kit amped like a credit card. This little item has saved me so often. I also add tissues, a drink bottle and wish I could make that lighter, and some personal items such as a hairbrush etc.

A few years ago my father and I went on a quest to find the perfect bag and we thought we found it. It was far from inexpensive and soon the navy leather turned green and the zippers gave way. Last week I took the darn thing to Tasmania with me and lamented that move as soon as we boarded the plane.

Pen Wilcock said...

Greta — your bag looks so pleasing! I like the charcoal grey. I had on watch on Amazon for a while a bag that could be used either as a shoulder bag or as a large waist pack — it looked similar to this bag of yours, but the strap adapted for the two alternative functions. I was very tempted, but in the end decided to stick with the one I had as it seemed to work for me.

Suzan — yes, like you I have been in the quest for the perfect bag since for ever. I've tried and discarded so many. I love that neat little tool kit! What a wonderful, useful thing. I have some of those items, but not packed flat and small all together in one place like that. How very satisfying.

Anonymous said...

That little set has become my go to gift for men for special birthdays. I always warn them that they will not let you fly with that in your cabin luggage.

Pen Wilcock said...

Ah, yes, of course! In case to try to use your tweezers to hijack the plane.

Rapunzel said...

My go-to bag for carrying 'lots of things' is wide and deep, simple on the outside (no zippers, hardware etc) and is grey. It has cats on it, because I bought it from a local charity I wanted to support which makes the bags and grey cats on a grey background was the least loud design they had on hand. It took me awhile to get used to it, but I get compliments on it from strangers so it must be not too odd a thing to have.
Inside there are seven pockets of various sizes to hold my wallet, calendar, keys, pens, small collapsible umbrella and such. This leaves the whole generous center of the bag free to hold file folders, books, etc for work or to carry home a few groceries or bring along a knitting project.
Before I found this one I had two bags (over several years) of other fabrics but a similar design that I completely wore out. When this one wears out I'll find another one as much like it as possible because it really works for me.
Took me about fifty years to find my ideal bag.
Still looking for the ideal wallet, haha!

Pen Wilcock said...

Your bag sounds brilliant! I love the idea of all the pockets. I already have the bag I want, but I admit I did look long and hard at these on Etsy the other day —
— it was the useful multiple pockets that attracted me.
And wallets — oh yes — like you, I still haven't found my ideal one. The one I use at present was a soft outer sleeve for a cosmetic compact (blusher? face powder? eyeshadow?) that was redundant from someone's life. It fits my cards nicely, but we have new bank notes in the UK that are problematic. They used to be paper, but we have gone over to more hardwearing polymer. This seems a good idea, but when they are creased, the creases are almost impossible to unfold. If you pay for groceries from an automatic (unmanned) checkout, or pay money into your account at a machine in the bank, then the creased polymer notes get stuck in the machine, which then rejects them. So it's become helpful to have a wallet where the notes can lie relatively flat, or at least only be curved round. My little thing I keep my cards in is the right size if you actually fold the notes, but then they get a permanent crease . . . So, I'm on the lookout for a wallet. However, because my bag is so small and slim, most wallets are too bulky for it. Jeepers. It's like a second career!

Rapunzel said...

Oooh, those shopping bags with the bottle sleeves are lovely Pen!

My Middle Child carries, instead of a wallet, a money clip. It holds her Euros and cards, the Euros gently folded not crisply folded. She slides the clip on from the top of the folded Euros, not from the fold side so they don't get smashed. This she carries in her pocket (our whole family are devoted to pockets).

I happened upon an old money clip of my daddy's and use it when I don't want to carry a bag, but Middle Child's is made from a silver spoon that has been flattened and folded in half. Tres artsy.

Pen Wilcock said...

Oh, good plan! I, too, am a pocket fan. Apparently pockets as we now know them were not even invented until the 17th century. I find this baffling. I'd have though as soon as stitched clothing was a thing then someone would've thought of pockets.

Elin said...

My ideal bag has one outside pocket, ideally one that zips and is rather flat. It has one or two small pockets on the inside and is medium sized. I also prefer one that doesn't have buckles etc but I do want it to be able to be zipped up. I like a plain design and colors can be anything that I like (so no beige or white and probably not yellow and some shades of grey but most other colors). It also must be able to be carried both in my hand and on my shoulder. The type of strap you have would make that possible so that would be an OK type of strap for me. I had one similiar to yours with a white braided strap and a greyish pale pink bag when I was in my early twenties. I really liked that one but wore it out completely and I have never found one that resonated with me the same way even though I have found similar ones. That one was very special to me.

Now with one kid still in diapers I use this one: I have a deep blue one though and it is slightly too large for my taste but I love that it can be carried as a backpack, shoulder bag and in your hand. It is also handy since I can bring my lunch to work in it and not need a separate bag for that and the same for papers etc. When I don't need a bag this size I will probably downsize for everyday but keep this one for when I need to bring more stuff. They are not cheap and it was not second hand so the purchase was ridden with some anxiety but it was one of those times spending more to get what I wanted was the right call I think.

Pen Wilcock said...

Oh, Fjällräven! I love their bags! They are expensive but also beautifully designed, practical, very well made and ecologically responsible. Good choice!

Jenna said...

I use a small cross-body bag quite like yours, Pen. My wallet is like this one but made in cheap plastic-y leather facsimile from the Five Below, and is showing its wear so I'll need this replacement soon. Not sure why they don't picture the other side, but it's got a clear window for my DL and prosthetic card for metal detectors, and a pocket for bills--and the zipper on top for change (parking, Aldi cart quarter, library printing). My two keys (house and car) are on a D-ring that clips to the bag strap ALWAYS.

I leave home so seldom and for not long stretches so the only thing I carry is lip balm. Then a pair of readers, sunglasses, phone and a pen. Oh! And my pepper spray my cop son thoughtfully provided.

Pen Wilcock said...

Ah! That's very neat — exactly the kind of thing I could do with. I'll look out for a UK version similar.