history of pincushion

The Pin and the Pincushion

As a new blog feature ‘Into the Sewing Box’ we’re delving into our haberdashery stash and discovering the curious history of sewing paraphernalia that we all know and love.

Marna Lunt Pincushion
The History of the Pincushion

The pincushion is a sewer’s best friend, quietly sat beside you at the sewing machine and your right hand man during your embroidery projects, this is a little blog post about our faithful friends the pin and the pincushion. As an embroiderer’s essential aid the pincushion is a safe home for pins, with a rich history the pincushion is still a trusty tool that can be found in the modern sewing box.

Pins 1620-1800 (made)
Pins 1620-1800 found on collections.vam.ac.uk

I’ll start with the pin; although now considered a cheap haberdashery staple (admittedly easy to sprinkle around the house waiting for unsuspecting toes) the pin was actually a delectable treat for embroiderers. So expensive in fact, men set aside ‘pin money’ for their wives as an allowance for their sewing supplies. Pins, needles and threads were incredibly expensive, made before the days of the machine pins were created by hand. And so the pincushion was born – a means to keep precious, pricey pins safe.


The pastime of embroidery was for the rich, so much so, the pincushion became a symbol of status, often worn from the waist like a chatelaine and even mentioned in wills and lists of assets!

Vintage Pincushion
Pincushion dated 1730-1769 found on collections.vam.ac.uk

The Layette pincushion is a curious object originating from the 17th Century; presents created for new mum’s to welcome little ones into the world, with names, dates and messages spelled out with pins. A pincushion was a very precious gift to give, as pins were used to fasten blankets to babies an alternative than stitched garments, so the blanket could be adjusted as the child grew.  Typically the Layette Pincushion was given after a baby had arrived because it was considered bad luck to name a child before it was born. Furthermore perhaps pushing into superstitious themes of voodoo, inserting pins into a pincushion was believed to inflict pain during birth. The Layette Pincushion was a present made with considerable skill; the cushion was often made with silks, which would easily disintegrate with too many pin holes.

Layette Pincushions collections.vam.ac.uk

When the industrial revolution arrived, so did the machine woven cloth, printed fabric became more accessible and items such as the pin and needles became readily available in the sewing basket. Along with the machine, life became a little easier and time was freed up, sewing was transformed from laborious domesticated tasks, to decorative embroidery projects. But through this revolution the pincushion remained an imperative element to the sewing basket.

Most of us have the famous red tomato pincushion, but why on earth a tomato?? Generally tomatoes were used in the household to repel evil spirits, often given as a housewarming gift to attract good spirits to a new home. But because tomatoes have a short shelf life unsurprisingly was a tricky gift to give, so people made fabric versions, the pincushions were stuffed with sawdust, wool or emery to preserve and keeps the pins sharp.

Found on elizabethhousestlouis.blogspot.co.uk
Found on elizabethhousestlouis.blogspot.co.uk

By just dipping my toe into the world on pincushions; it’s safe to say they derive from some very superstitious stitchers! It also suggests that the sewing basket was in fact a treasured and sacred item in every household, so next time you delve into your sewing box – think about your friend the pincushion and the good luck it brings to your sewing projects.

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