Stitches in Time
COLLECTING ANTIQUE SEWING ACCESSORIES
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 HISTORY OF SEWING
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 APPEAL OF SEWING ACCESSORIES
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.
TYPES OF SEWING ACCESSORIES
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.