by Suzanne Labry
It is said that sewing can trace its roots back 20,000 years and is a universal activity practiced in all cultures.
Early sewing needles were made from bone, wood, or plants, and the first thread was made from plant fibers and animal sinew. Those early sewers were stitching hides and furs together for clothing, bedding, and shelter, and it is not hard to imagine that there were many “Eureka! moments” across a multitude of cultures when discovering that a gizmo like a thimble could help push the needle through those heavy materials. Chinese archaeologists have found the earliest known example of a thimble in a tomb dating to 202 B.C.
The basic triumvirate of sewing tools—needle, thread, and thimble—are still the same now as they were since the beginnings of history, although we can justly claim to have gotten a tad more sophisticated in the materials used to make them.
The fourth sewing essential—scissors—came a little later to the party (teeth no doubt having served as an early stand-in for thread-cutting). Pivoted scissors (the forerunner of our modern scissors) were invented by the Romans sometime around A.D. 100.
The straight pin, another sewing must-have, also has a long history, beginning with thorns and bone, and moving into pins made of bronze by ancient Egyptians.
Iron wire was used to make pins in France and Spain as early as the 15th century, and the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century saw the creation of pin factories in Europe. The straight pin’s basic design has changed little since then.
With sewing being a way of life for everyone everywhere for millennia, it seems plausible that a receptacle in which to store the essential tools of the trade must have developed early on in the mists of history as well. I could find no history on when the sewing caddy came into being, but it’s not too great a stretch to assume that even Stone Age seamstresses would find a way to store and carry their sewing paraphernalia.
According to Collector’s Weekly, “The earliest sewing containers were simple bags made of fabric or leather. However, by the 18th century in Europe, metalworkers, jewelers, and other craftspeople were tasked with making fine sewing tools for aristocrats and ladies of the courtâ€¦In the 19th century, industrialization and the rise of the middle class created a market for less expensive and more practical sewing boxes that were both attractive and durable.”
Sewing baskets, boxes, and caddies take all sorts of shapes and forms, from simple to elaborate.Â Every quilter has one of some type. My grandmother gave me a small sewing basket made of wicker for Christmas when I was 9 years old, and I still use it today. My favorites, though, are two wooden folk art caddies that I own that are shaped like birds.
In both of these, a hole in the bird’s head provides a storage space for scissors, which, when inserted in the hole, form the bird’s beak. The wings—made from stuffed fabric—double as pincushions to keep needles and pins sharp and handy. Pegs serve as holders for thimbles and spools of thread.
These bird caddies, while not the most practical storage units, are funny-looking little things and they make me smile. I doubt early sewers had such whimsical ways to store their sewing tools, and I wonder what they would think of mine.