If you know me a little, you know I have a keen interest in sharp things, namely, needles, scissors, and knives. In my mind these comprise some of the best tools ever devised!
For needles, which I have used in both my sewing and my nursing careers, there goes back a very long history of reverence, suspicion, and of course to reign that in, the pincushion. Museums hold ancient bronze pins found on several continents, and there are examples of more rustic pins made of honey locust thorns used by Native Americans. In the early 14th century pins came into common use in France and England, and were commonly forged of iron. Brass and steel pins evolved from these, and “pin-money” came to be included in women’s wedding gifts in order to secure the expensive, luxurious commodity. In 1775 the Congress of America bought 300 pins from England for 16 pence a piece! To protect their pins, women and tailors devised the pin-poppet (boxes for needles), then pin-pillows (which tended to be larger than you’d imagine, and embellished with embroidery, beads, tassels, and decoratively arranged pins), knitted pin-cushions which might be hung from the girdle under large skirts, and finally, more compact, table-top versions like we see today. Often, to not let a thing go to waste and for the opportunity to create a unique and beautiful pincushion, the spendthrift homemaker would create it, as blossoming out of a broken lamp base or vase. In the 16th through 19th centuries, pin cushions were considered appropriate wedding and birthday gifts, and were embroidered with dates, poetry, and well-wishes. In 1817 a pin-making machine was introduced and so began the slow depreciation of pins.
We have arrived at the point where pins and needles are considered extremely disposable, and unfortunately the pincushion has taken a similar blow. I spent the last few weeks looking into what I could get for pincushions and let me tell you: it was depressing. I kept running across adorable pincushions (they are about as common as jewelry and soap on Etsy), things people had obviously spent old days’ quantities of time hot-glueing together into all sorts of forms. But well-intentioned crafters are loosely stuffing them with cheap fluff and ending up with flimsy-feeling, featherweight pincushions that feel like they could blow away with a sneeze.
Why are people filling your otherwise adorable pin cushions with Polyfil batting and/or cotton fiber filling! What self-respecting pin can stand that?!
Stuff your pincushion with bits of wool scrap! Traditional sewists familiar with time-honored tailoring techniques know this is how it is done, and why. Why? Wool was traditionally more accessible than synthetic stuffers, and most vintage pincushions will be found filled with fine sand or flannel (wool flannel, that is) but that’s not necessarily why it was preferred. Lanolin in unrefined wool will condition/lubricate your needles, allowing them to slide more easily through your fabrics. It keeps them from rusting as well. Also, once over-stuffed (and do cram it in), your pincushion will have a substantive, gratifying weight to it. And finally, the texture of wool helps keep needles from forming burrs and snags. Needles won’t be so prone to early resistance on piercing the pincushion, and the overshot which frequently ends with the needle stubbing on the table (or in your wrist)!
My birthday present to myself this year was a wrist pincushion. It’s certainly nothing fancy; no embroidery or frou frou. But for someone who sews daily (like me!) a wrist pincushion is a sewing epiphany. I used this free online pincushion pattern to jumpstart my project, and when it came time to stuff it, man I jammed as much wool scrap (which I have tons of since I deal in wool hats) as I could in there. While being pushed into the pincushion, the needles (which I admittedly abuse terribly) resonate on my fingers with the tiniest friction, almost as if the pin cushion was filled with a fine sand. Pulling a needle out, there is the slightest resistance. To me this means needles only come out when I want them to come out — another nice feature of the overstuffed wool pincushion.
I was at Bolt fabric store on NE Alberta St in Portland and noticed someone is making cute pincushions from this same free pattern. (Not a single deviation from the pattern, though. Dommage! I hate to see people selling things they didn’t design themselves.) Anyway, the saddest thing about those sad little pincushions was… they’re lightly filled with polyester fluff. Crap. What has this world come to?
- Pincushion shopping? View my “correct pincushion” treasury on Etsy!
- My pin and pincushion research references “Pins and Pincushions” by E.D. Longman and S. Loch, 1911.
- What pins do I like? Glass head pins! You have to be able to iron them without worrying about molten plastic ruining your day. I recommend these Collins Crystal Glass Head Pins because they are affordable, durable, cute, and ubiquitous. I believe they come in two lengths in this type: 1-3/8 0.50mm and 1-7/8 0.50mm (quilting). Try the 1-3/8″ length for general sewing. I’ve tried a lot of needles and I just like these best so far.