by Diana Bulls
Ever since Eve ate the apple in the Garden of Eden, humans have been trying to fashion coverings for their bodies. Fig leaves progressed to animal skins (much softer and less itchy), and eventually to woven cloth. And along the way, a plethora of sewing accessories have come into being, opening another opportunity for collectors: the fascinating history of fashion and the evolution of how garments were created.
Collections can run the gamut from spinning wheels to sewing machines, sewing patterns, or hand-sewing tools like thimbles, scissors and pin cushions. There are storage boxes and baskets for general supplies, plus fancy boxes especially for pins or needles. Buttons or thimbles can be a huge collection all on their own, and the list can go on and on.
My interest in sewing collectibles started when I was fairly young. I grew up, surrounded by women who tatted, crocheted, embroidered and sewed. Their sewing boxes and baskets were full of little treasures that I never got tired of looking at. There was always a dresser drawer that held material, scraps of lace, velvet flowers, ribbons and trims, and BUTTONS! To this day, I can hardly pass up a jar of buttons at yard sale. Cathy, a friend of mind with a similar sewing background, and I used to play “Name That Dress” by holding up a particular button and naming the style, fabric, and color of the dress.
I’m just going to highlight two of the many, many sewing items that one could collect. That way, if I ever run out of collectibles to write about, I can always go back to sewing items.
Sewing Baskets and Boxes
Sewing has almost always been a way of life, especially for women–all girls were expected to learn how to sew. It was important to have some kind of storage container to keep and protect sewing implements. The first containers were simple pouches made of animal hides, gradually evolving into bags of fabric or leather. By the 18th century, however, elegant boxes just for sewing tools were being produced in a variety of materials. Many were inlaid with mother of pearl on the outside and lined inside with silk or velvet. The interiors of some boxes were especially fitted for scissors, thread winders and spools, button hooks and other implements. The majority of these sewing boxes were made for the very rich.
With industrialization in the 19th century, a market was created for less expensive and more practical sewing storage. Many tools and notions were now being made of steel, so it was important to keep them water proof and rust free. A typical Victorian box would be large enough to hold all of a lady’s sewing tools, plus some of her handiwork. You might even find a love letter or memento! The interior of woman’s sewing box was considered an intimate space, just like your purse is today. In France, small sewing boxes were known as “étui” (you know this word if you do crossword puzzles), and in England and Germany they were known as “lady’s companions”.
Small, lidded baskets also made excellent sewing containers. Chinese brides would be presented with small gifts in ornate baskets. In the 1880s, these baskets were exported to the United States, by the thousands, and remained popular through the 1930s. In fact, baskets were the most used sewing containers in the early 20th century. They were often lined and had spaces for a pair of scissors and a thimble sewn into the lining, and included a pin cushion. Wooden sewing boxes with legs and drawers became popular about this time also, followed by plastic or metal boxes in the 1950s.
Scissors and Shears
The first pair of scissors probably originated in Egypt around 1500 B.C. Made of a single blade of bronze, formed in a U-shape, they weren’t very efficient. Cross-bladed scissors came into being around 100 A.D. Roman inventors came up with something resembling sheep shearers that were made from iron. Modern scissors, using two blades with a central pivot were made sometime in the 6th century. Although Leonardo da Vinci’s name is associated with scissors, he cannot be credited with their invention. By 1830, scissors were being made from steel in the region around Sheffield, England.
The difference between scissors and shears is the size of the blades. Blades over 5 inches are generally called shears. Both have been created for specific uses such as tailoring, embroidery, buttonhole cutting and general sewing. Pinking shears, for example, were made with notched blades in order to cut fabric so it wouldn’t fray. Scissors made specifically for barbers and hairdressers were first made in the 19th century.
Victorian era scissors can be highly decorated with gilded or sterling silver handles. Often they were sold with a protective sheath made of fabric or leather. Germany became the leader in steel scissor production in the 20th century, and was known for affordable, long-lasting blades created by the drop-forge process. Some scissor brands to look for include Wiss, DOVO, Keen Kutter, Hartenau, and even Winchester (the gun maker).
Sewing covers a huge area, and you might even have the start of a good collection right at home. Just having a vintage sewing basket, filled with the appropriate-aged tools and/or notions, can make a decorative statement in your home. A container filled with wooden thread spools can look modern or country. Whatever you decide to collect, do it because you love it or because you can appreciate the women who used these humble items throughout the years.
Fun Facts about Sewing
• Sewing dates back about 20,000 years. Needles were first made of animal horns and bone. Thread was crafted from animal sinew. Archeologists have discovered needles with eyes from this period.
• The thimble dates back to 202 BC to AD 220–Chinese archaeologists report finding a sewing set complete with thimble from that period.
• Sewing changed dramatically around 1844, when Elias Howe was credited with a prototype of today’s sewing machine.
• The sewing machine was one of the first home use appliances.
• The safety pin, an item we all use when sewing, basting, and spot mending, was invented around 1849 by Walter Hunt. He sold the patent rights for around four hundred dollars–someone, not Mr. Hunt, became very wealthy from this invention.
• 1851 saw the introduction of a sewing machine for home use by Isaac Merrit Singer, a name now associated with sewing on an everyday basis.
• Prior to 1850, all sewing machines were operated by hand. Singer invented the foot treadle and made the work a little less cumbersome.
• As early as 1897, the Sears catalog offered sewing machines for sale via mail order.
• Filmmaker Tim Burton had a life-long fascination with scissors, calling them an interesting invention. His interest in scissors prompted the creation of his movie Edward Scissorhands.
Credits: My husband, Jim, for the name of this article.
Check out more of Diana’s home collectible articles here in KRL’s Hometown History section.