Stitches in Time


Victorian Homes - - Contents - By Lidy Baars

Collecting an­tique sewing accessories gives us a fond look into the past.

P assed down with great love from mother to daugh­ter, sis­ter to sis­ter and friend to friend, sewing tools and accessories have al­ways been prized per­sonal pos­ses­sions.

Be­cause a Vic­to­rian woman of­ten did not have the le­gal right to own prop­erty her­self, de­pend­ing on what state or coun­try she lived in, her sewing accessories were one of the few things she could be­queath to some­one she loved. Sewing tools, with their sen­ti­men­tal res­o­nance, were quite pre­cious to those who in­her­ited them. They were of­ten ob­jects of art in their own right, made of the finest ma­te­ri­als. There was a tool for each task, and each item came in many vari­a­tions. Most Vic­to­rian young women re­ceived a fully out­fit­ted sewing bas­ket for a spe­cial birth­day, or as part of her trousseau.


The art of sewing has a long his­tory, be­gin­ning with the Pa­le­olithic Age when Stone Age peo­ple used sinew to piece animal hides to­gether for cloth­ing and shel­ter. Through­out the cen­turies, weav­ing cloth, mak­ing pat­terns, cut­ting fabric and pro­duc­ing cloth­ing as well as all house­hold linens took up many work hours in ev­ery woman’s life.

Un­til the Mid­dle Ages, cloth­ing was prac­ti­cal, not beau­ti­ful. Most of the pop­u­la­tion made their own cloth in nat­u­ral col­ors of flax, wool and linen. Only Euro­pean no­bil­ity could af­ford to em­ploy seam­stresses to fab­ri­cate richly col­ored and em­bel­lished robes and gowns.

Al­though sewing has al­ways been as­so­ci­ated with women through­out his­tory, men also have a rich his­tory of sewing. Sailors learned to mend the great bil­low­ing sails on their ships out of ne­ces­sity, and also how to mend their cloth­ing while they were away at sea. Tailors are the ul­ti­mate ex­am­ple of men who sewed, fash­ion­ing qual­ity gen­tle­men’s suits and shirts.

Dec­o­ra­tive needle­work such as em­broi­dery was an es­sen­tial com­po­nent of fe­male virtue for no­ble women from the Mid­dle Ages un­til the early 1800s, but it wasn’t un­til the Vic­to­rian age that home sewing for plea­sure be­came im­mensely pop­u­lar. Even Queen Vic­to­ria had con­sid­er­able skill with a nee­dle. Ev­ery Vic­to­rian young woman was re­quired to be an ex­pert in the fine art of sewing, a vi­tal ac­com­plish­ment for ev­ery bride and mother. Coin­cid­ing with the in­ven­tion of the first sewing ma­chine, the pop­u­lar­ity of sewing at home brought along with it the pro­duc­tion of sewing tools of ev­ery kind, and for ev­ery bud­get.


The most ex­cit­ing part of collecting an­tique sewing accessories is their per­sonal na­ture. The sewing boxes, nee­dle hold­ers, pin cush­ions, tape mea­sures and other im­ple­ments be­long­ing to a seam­stress long ago are the thread that con­nects us to her past.

More than just the act of pierc­ing cloth with a nee­dle and thread, sewing was a method in which a mid­dle class Vic­to­rian woman could work with dig­nity, joy and mean­ing. Of­ten done in com­pany, sewing to­gether was a way to con­nect, spend time in the com­pany of other women and share the lat­est fash­ions and so­ci­ety news.


The cus­tom­ary Vic­to­rian sewing bas­ket in­cluded a nee­dle case, thim­ble, sewing scis­sors, thread, pin­cush­ion, hem gauges and darn­ing tools, along with a va­ri­ety of but­tons. There were thread winders, hand-inked mea­sur­ing tapes, stiletto nee­dles, sewing clamps, chate­laine accessories and much more.


The very ear­li­est sewing con­tain­ers meant to hold nee­dles, thread and scis­sors were bags of leather or thick fabric. By the 18th cen­tury, as artists and crafts­men in Europe were craft­ing fine sewing tools for no­ble ladies, costly sewing bas­kets and boxes were also avail­able. In­laid with gems and pre­cious met­als, these boxes were only for the very wealthy.

Dur­ing the Vic­to­rian era, how­ever, the rise of the mid­dle classes estab­lished a mar­ket for less ex­pen­sive and more prac­ti­cal sewing bas­kets. Just large enough to hold her sewing tools and per­haps a book of po­etry, a woman’s sewing bas­ket or box was her in­ti­mate space. There was a cer­tain re­gard for

the pri­vacy of a sewing bas­ket, just as there is now for a lady’s purse.


Nee­dles were safe and se­cure in nee­dle cases specif­i­cally made for this pur­pose. The range of nee­dle cases is extensive; they come in a va­ri­ety of ma­te­ri­als and there are nee­dle cases for ev­ery price point. Hand carved of wood or bone, made of gleam­ing ster­ling by sil­ver smiths or lov­ingly per­fected in hand painted porce­lain, each is unique. Of­ten shaped like a fig­u­ral or dec­o­ra­tive item, a nee­dle case was a fa­vored gift for the hol­i­days or a birth­day.


The most sought-af­ter sewing col­lectible, the thim­ble, or the sewer’s wed­ding ring as it’s some­times called, was worn over a woman’s fin­ger or thumb to pro­tect it from nee­dle pricks. Made of gold, ster­ling sil­ver, bronze or porce­lain, a thim­ble was the most per­sonal pos­ses­sion in the sewing bas­ket. Thim­bles in per­fect con­di­tion de­mand the high­est prices, while those that are ob­vi­ously worn have so much char­ac­ter and his­tory that some col­lec­tors pre­fer them.


Pins se­cured cloth­ing while sewing, and it was in­evitable that “keeps” of ev­ery sort would come onto the mar­ket. At first, pins were quite costly, and lit­tle boxes were made to keep them safe and rust free. Once pins were mass pro­duced dur­ing the mid1800s, pin­cush­ions be­came part of the Vic­to­rian sewing room. Nov­elty pin­cush­ions in the shape of dolls, shoes, an­i­mals and other fan­ci­ful shapes had whimsical ap­peal.


Scis­sors and shears came in all sizes, from diminu­tive em­broi­dery scis­sors to large shears for cut­ting fab­rics. Gold plated scis­sors with han­dles shaped like storks or owls were the dis­tinc­tive de­sign of John Rogers & Sons and Thomas Wilkin­son & Sons of Sh­effield, Eng­land. The back­bone of any sewing ac­cou­trement, scis­sors were soon pro­duced with a va­ri­ety of or­nate han­dles, made from mother of pearl, bone and re­pousse ster­ling sil­ver. These stylish scis­sors be­came a pop­u­lar courtship gift.

These sewing accessories and tools were de­vised to help with the prac­ti­cal prob­lems of sewing, but they were of­ten made with great crafts­man­ship and im­bued with beauty. Each one is a small work of art, pro­vid­ing us with a very tan­gi­ble link to our past. Whether you col­lect one kind of sewing ac­ces­sory, or all, you will be charmed with their in­her­ent beauty and whimsical na­ture. If you still use them for sewing, so much the bet­ter!

Sewing trea­sures worth collecting in­clude stock­ing darn­ers, a chate­laine pin­keep, a ster­ling sil­ver needle­case and any­thing else that catches your fancy.

Mother-of-pearl pin cush­ions and hand­carved nee­dle cases were sta­ples for the Vic­to­rian seam­stress.

The owner of French­gar­den­house. com, a pop­u­lar on­line an­tique and home dé­cor store, Lidy Baars has more than 18 years of ex­pe­ri­ence as an antiques dealer and de­signer. Her home and gar­den have been fea­tured in na­tional mag­a­zines such as Vic­to­rian Homes and Ro­man­tic Homes mag­a­zines, as well as in two de­sign books.

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