Tomato Pincushions and the Lowly Pin

I’m reading a seriously geeky-cool book right now:

It’s written by an archaeologist from BU and focuses on the archaeological remains of sewing found in historical sites around the world. I’m fascinated by all of it, in the most nerdy way–right now, I’m on the chapter about pins: how they’re made, when and how they were created and how they changed over time, and what they look like when found in an archaeological site. I had no idea there were so many varieties of pin heads throughout history, or that until the 1800s, pinning for sewing was the least of their uses! Apparently, clothing was all but pinned in place for most of human history, and pinning for sewing was somewhat second place.

So this morning, while eating breakfast (I only ever get to read recreationally before bed and over cereal–and yes, I am such a dweeb that learning about archaeological pin facts counts as “recreation” for me), I was learning about pin cushions and their amazing variety.

Like this puppy:

This is commonly referred to as a “needle case” by archaeologists, but the author of this book points out that since the case would likely have been stuffed with a sawdust-filled cushion and used to store pins, as well, that the carved bone tube attached to a long cord would have been carried on an individual–usually a woman–for emergency pinning during the day. Say, if her veil slipped or her corset busted a string. I love that idea: that something so small is a reflection of real life, and that when we consider the Middle Ages (from which this needle case dates), I think of them as being sort of staid and dry and uninteresting, but they were filled with people who had concerns both large and small, ranging from “Will Father return from the Crusades?” all the way down to “I sure hope the wind doesn’t knock my veil down!”

Considering that every pin until 1834 was MADE BY HAND, they were quite expensive, and represent a primary investment in a household, making their storage and even display a big part of daily life.

So imagine my delight this morning when I browse my reader and find this gem, from Gertie’s New Blog for Better Sewing:

She’s taken the time to write a post about the tomato pin cushion–my all-time recommendation for pin cushions, and a classic–with some lovely factoids and great comments from readers. Thought you’d all like to check it out! (Her blog, by the way, is smart and witty and a joy to read, every day–you really might want to consider adding her to your feeder.)

Happy stitching, everyone!

You Might Also Like

  • Karen
    December 15, 2009 at 9:54 am

    It is interesting that needles and pins were so valued in earlier times. And who who sews has never had a tomato? I know I have owned several over the years but do not have one at this time. I found a magnetic bowl at a auto parts store that is wonderful for holding pins.

  • Miss Sews-it-all
    December 15, 2009 at 7:53 pm

    Oh, I've been eyeing that book for awhile and it looks so interesting! It's going back on my to-read list. And I did see Gertie's post, how cool is that?

  • Anonymous
    December 16, 2009 at 4:46 am

    We still carry little pin and needle cases in Turkey (we ladies, that is). They are about the same size as the one in the picture, though usually metal these days, and they contain a few straight pins, a safety pin, a needle and a little thread wrapped around a tiny piece of card. Good for repinning scarves that come adrift or sewing up accidental rips or buttons that pop off, etc. A bit like carrying your puncture repair kit round if you ride a bike, I suppose! Very useful!


  • Nichola
    December 30, 2009 at 7:45 pm

    That book looks very interesting, must get my hands on a copy 🙂