Artist of the month Lizzie Searle shows her toy theatre inspired handbags to Sarah Cassells

Lizzie Searle's original collection of embroidered handbags is inspired by the colour and drama of toy theatre. As they go on sale in a Norfolk boutique this month, Sarah Cassells puts the talented young designer in the spotlight.

Theatrical productions

Lizzie Searle’s original collection of embroidered handbags is inspired by the colour and drama of toy theatre. As they go on sale in a Norfolk boutique this month, Sarah Cassells puts the talented young designer in the spotlight.

Pictures: Sonya Duncan

Her collection of novelty handbags is the textile translation of a fascination with toy theatre, so where better to photograph the bright, whimsical work of up-and-coming designer Lizzie Searle than in Norwich’s Puppet Theatre?

Under the glaring audience lights, posed beside the theatre’s resident puppets, her handbags exude a mix of  the playful and enchanting. But while they might look sweet and quirky, the bags from this budding Lulu Guinness are actually serious business: Each one represents hours of painstaking hand-embroidery and they are selling for hundreds – and even thousands – of pounds.

“I just wanted to display the fun and magic of the theatre and each bag reveals hidden treasures,” says Lizzie, who at just 21 has been tipped by textile industry magazines as one-to-watch.

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Photographed alongside Pinocchio and Prince Charming are a striking binocular clutch bag; an elaborate carpet bag with a hidden miniature theatre and secret trapdoor; an oversized prop clutch bag that gives the illusion of a giant metal clasp; and a draped arm bag, which has a concealed opening from which a little usher pops out.

A former Sprowston High School and City College Norwich student, Lizzie studied sewing, embroidery and pattern-cutting within a contemporary applied arts degree at the University of Cumbria. The handbags were part of her final year’s work and followed an inspirational trip to Pollock’s Toy Museum in London.

“The sweetie-wrapper colours and decorations of the Victorian toy theatres were amazing; I could see so many bags coming from those ideas,” she says. “I decided on novelty handbags because there were no boundaries – you could put a handle on anything. So I decided to put a theatre inside a handbag.”

Several 19-hour days followed where Lizzie designed her own hand-printed silks so that a pattern linked the bags together, made her own buttons and appliqu�d and embroidered into the early hours.

“I was a woman possessed!” She recalls. “In your last year at university everybody throws themselves into their work so my friends understood, but there were times when they’d say: ‘Put the needle down Lizzie…we’re taking you to the pub.’”

Her hard work paid off, because Lizzie was among a select few students put forward by their universities to display work at the New Designers exhibition in London’s Islington Business Centre. Representatives from galleries and magazine writers from the textile and fashion industry were among those charmed by the designer’s first collection, and as a result she was asked to tour with the Embroiderers Guild in their graduate showcase.  “They only take about 20 students from the thousands presenting so it was a massive honour,” says Lizzie, who went on to exhibit at the Knitting and Stitching Shows in London, Dublin and Harrogate.

Her work has been widely praised for helping modernise embroidery, something she says she gained from a month’s placement in Cyprus learning about the dying craft of traditional basket weaving, “It showed us that you have to make crafts contemporary, otherwise they die. We learnt to use traditional techniques in a new light.”

Handbags aren’t her only forte either. She’s dabbled in set design, creating a New York skyline for a university play, and costume production, sewing 19 pantaloon outfits for a production of The King and I. More recently she made a carrot costume for Beeston’s HFG Farm Shop where she used to work. “They visit schools to promote healthy eating, so I thought it would help to have a mascot,” she says.

The vibrant purple military-style coat she’s wearing for the photos is also one of her own creations, but handbags remain her passion: “Because a handbag doesn’t have to be just a handbag, it can be a statement.” For the past six months, Lizzie has worked at Anglian Fashion Fabrics in Norwich, but she’s just become a partner at Verandah boutique in Holt, which opens this month. There she will be selling her embroidered artwork, theatrical bags and a new collection.

“It takes in aspects of the theatrical bags, but will be more practical without losing the element of surprise and humour,” she says. “People seemed to be drawn to the little usher popping out of the arm bag, so I created a range of bags that are more useable, but still have a twist; there are little embroidered people hidden inside.”

These new bags will be selling for around �100, although smaller ones will be less. The carpet bag, a feat of epic embroidery, is �2,500. “But I don’t think I could ever part with it,” says Lizzie. “It’s my favourite because it has so much of me in it; time, heartache and pain!”

It’s also one of her pieces with a Norfolk touch. The theatre stage inside the bag features an embroidered Norwich Castle because Lizzie believes it looks like something out of a fairytale. The region also inspires other areas of her work. “I know it’s a bit clich�, but I love the random clashing colours of Norfolk’s beach huts,” she says, crafting embroidered pictures of beach huts and the seaside for Verandah.

When asked which designer’s work she admires, Lizzie gushes enthusiastically about Lulu Guinness and her famous range of novelty bags. Her ambition is to achieve the same level of sartorial success. “To sell in boutiques so that people recognise what a Lizzie Searle handbag is – that would be amazing,”  she says.

For more information on Lizzie’s work you can contact her on 07948 398313,, or visit Verandah, 39 Bull Street, Holt, 01263 715785.

The April programme at Norwich Puppet Theatre includes children’s productions The Ugly Duckling and The Cat that Walked by Himself, and adult burlesque and cabaret show No Strings. Find out more on 01603 629921 or visit