Nancy Seven VanDerPuy ’74 knows it sounds crazy, especially to good, practical, Calvin-directed Christians intent on restoring the orders of creation. Like her. “Sometimes I think, ‘Why am I making purses?’” she said.
But the path of the last 10 years has brought her steadily to the conviction that God Himself has given her this rare and exquisite and extravagant art form.
In 1997, VanDerPuy was volunteering in the Sheboygan (Wis.) County Historical Museum. An archivist there learned VanDerPuy was an avid knitter and showed her some 200-year-old beaded purses kept in museum storage.
“I looked at them, and I knew I had to learn how to do that,” she said.
VanDerPuy guesses there are fewer than 50 people in the world who have mastered beaded purse knitting, so instruction was hard to come by.
“It was a lot of trial and error,” she said. “But I was driven to find out how, 200 years ago, they made these beautiful things. I wanted to create my own.”
The passion to make beautiful purses was lit in VanDerPuy at a fortuitous moment. In September 1998 she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I put the beaded purse knitting away,” she said, “because I thought I’d never finish it. When I felt, ‘I’m really going to live,’ I picked it up again, and then I was really gung-ho. When you’ve had a bilateral mastectomy you don’t feel very beautiful. But I saw that because I’m made in God’s image, I could still create beautiful things, and maybe that made me beautiful.”
VanDerPuy’s witness to a creative God who sustained her in illness is one she always shares when she gives demonstrations and teaches classes in beaded knitting. Even single-purchase customers get a bit of it. Inside each purse she stitches a red bead and a gold bead; a business card tucked in with them explains they represent the blood of Jesus and eternal treasure and offers Luke 12:33: “Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail … for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
That was the text her pastor chose on a Sunday morning in July 2006. For months VanDerPuy had been praying for direction: Should she leave her profitable job to make purses full time? “I was sure that was my answer, I had no doubt about it.”
So VanDerPuy quit her job to spend eight or more hours a day knitting with needles the thickness of piano wire, fine cotton thread and glass beads, some of them not much bigger than grains of sand. She has refined the old technique of bead knitting and has created her own patterns inspired by vintage purses: geometric designs, florals, even scenes of mountain castles rendered on bags about the size of her hand.
Seven of her patterns—along with photographs of the antique purses that inspired them and instructions for making VanDerPuy’s designs—are contained in her book, Knitting Beaded Purses: A Complete Guide to Creating Your Own, published by Schiffer Books in January 2008. A second book will be released in early 2009.
After 10 years of knitting beaded purses, VanDerPuy says she’s “still so passionate about it. I get to share my faith with people I would never otherwise meet. And I get so excited helping other people make beautiful things, too."
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