Sewing baskets: A stitch in time saves nine

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Striking round sewing basket complete with lid and contents.

Granted, sewing is not today the household activity of previous generations. But the accompanying sewing basket is making a comeback. As a decorative item, old sewing baskets still are much to behold.

Historically, sewing baskets came in various shapes and sizes. To help contain the contents most provided a lid or some means to close off the base. Such sewing baskets also came in assorted materials from the splints of oak and hickory to grass and palm leaves.

Choices in the late 18th century ranged from the dramatic red lacquer China trade box with gold decoration to the rustic hand-crafted. Chinese lacquer boxes often had finely cared ivory fittings and were highly regarded household treasures.

Additionally there was the French “necessaire” which often combined polished wood or papier-mache with flares of inlaid mother of pearl. Typically they held a few small sewing items including scissors, needles, and thimble. The German “hussif” was usually smaller that the French version, but was sometimes velvet covered.

In 1791 Mrs. Benedict Arnold was reportedly given a bird’s-eye maple sewing box with birch back fittings that was very definitely made in America. It was crafted by Elasaba of the Micmac tribe and is now in the American Museum in England.

In some regions of early America, Native Americans sometimes used moose hair instead of silk thread. Sometimes sewing baskets held combinations of items, one crafted with silk and the other crafted with moose hair. In nearly every case they were both delicate and elaborate. Other Native American works made use of available materials such as strands of wood, pine needles, or tall-growing grass.

During the first half of the 19th century Pennsylvania Germans frequently made actual sewing baskets, rather than boxes, using generous amounts of oak splints and rye straw.

“When one considers the large amount of needlework, both plain and fancy, that was accomplished by young ladies and their mothers during the 18th and 19th centuries, it is understandable that personal sewing boxes should be among the truly cherished possessions of most American families,” noted Nina Little in the book, Neat and Tidy: Boxes and Their Contents Used in Early American Households.

Regardless of material origins the basic sewing box and the basic sewing basket seemed to further evolve throughout the second half of the 19th century. Some finer examples in the words of author Little, “exhibited a cabinetmaker’s skill.” They could be very stylish, framed with the best of quality hard woods, and often lined with quality fabric or colorful paper. Many of the fancier types had compartments or divided sections for storage of individual sewing accessories including a pincushion and spools of thread. Some of the most elaborate even provided for a removable tray which held smaller items.

Sewing baskets enjoyed a renewed popularity in the 1880s and 1890s, and among the best were those made by the strictly religious Shaker communities and sold to the public. Shaker sewing baskets used a woven rib construction that made them especially strong and durable. Such baskets were often sold in small shops within the Shaker colonies, or sometimes available in local shops and often included a pincushion.

As a matter of fact, sewing baskets of that era frequently came with pincushions attached to the top according to Helen Thompson author of Sewing Tools and Trinkets. Still other sewing baskets continued the Chinese tradition of using a thin silk rope to attach beads and coins to the top of the basket.

Just about every Victorian home kept a sewing basket  in a prominent place. Increasingly they were circular, but varied considerably in size. A larger sewing baskets could hold a woman’s entire inventory of sewing accessories and supplies even including an assortment of fabrics. Smaller sewing baskets might hold more specialized sewing materials for more limited tasks.

In 1908 the Sears and Roebuck catalog was offering fancy sewing boxes lined with satin. Their best selections provided a combination of plus material and celluloid. Beneath the transparent celluloid was “a pretty picture” and inside were “six useful sewing articles with plenty of room for other articles used by one who sews.”

For about half the price Sears and Roebuck customers could purchase a square-shaped  8-inch sewing “work” basket featuring straw braided into fancy designs.”

Those not willing to use a store-bought sewing basket, could make their own at home.“After the basketry revival around the turn of the century, reed and raffia (woven fiber from palm leaves) were suggested as the best, easiest materials to find and use for making baskets,” points out Frances Johnson author of The Wallace-Homestead Price Guide to Baskets. “It was also about this time that bamboo sewing baskets began to be imported in large numbers.

By the 1920s a great number of raffia sewing baskets were on the market. In 1922 the Montgomery Ward catalog offered brown raffia sewing baskets complete with scissors, thimble and three spools of thread. Square or round types were available ranging in size from 4 inches to to 5 1/2 inches in diameter. In addition, the catalog also offered white and purple raffia sewing baskets that came with a bisque doll. Apparently aimed at children, the baskets were 6 inches in diameter with “baby doll” bisque figures. Besides the doll, the basket came with two “rolls” of thread, two pieces of material, and a card of buttons. Total cost was 98 cents.

Amish groups continued to provide quality sewing baskets for sale from the 1930s to the 1950s. Finely constructed with willow rods and wooden bases, many were lined with oilcloth and a pin cushion attached. Some of the larger Amish sewing baskets were more than 8 inches in diameter.

Today, surviving sewing baskets continue to attract collectors who have no intention of doing any serious sewing by hand. Instead such baskets are considered very decorative. They can be used for any number of purposes including holding costume jewelry, dried-flower arrangements, old photographs, or for recipes and coupons.

Basic care should be used in connection with vintage sewing baskets including avoiding dampness and excessive heat. Baskets should be kept out of direct sunlight and away from moisture producing substances.


Make a sewing basket or emergency sewing kit

A sewing basket makes a lovely bridal shower gift – one that is very likely not to be duplicated by another guest. Sewing baskets or kits can be made in any size that the recipient will find useful: to fit in a desk drawer at work; to keep in the car; to slip in a carry-on bag when traveling; or a large container that holds a multitude of sewing aids.

First select a container. If using a wicker basket, use one with a synthetic finish to prevent fraying, chipping, and wearing. Film canisters, a small coin purse or matchbook can hold the items needed for an emergency sewing kit.

Items to fill the basket can be found at sewing or craft stores, mail-order catalogs or on-line.

Start with the basics.

Needles

Needles come in many sizes and varieties. You can find assortments of different sizes and kinds. Be sure to include the most commonly used kinds. Regular sharp needles are ideal for all woven fabrics and can be found in a wide range of sizes from 9 (light duty) to 18 (heavy duty). Sharps produce an even stitch and cause a minimum of fabric puckering. This needle is not recommended for knits, as it has a tendency to “cut” yarns and cause skipped stitches.

The ballpoint needles are designed for knit and elastic fabrics. They have a rounded point – rather than a sharp point – to push between the fabric yarns rather than cutting through the yarns. Ballpoints come in sizes 9 to 16; the larger the needle size, the more rounded the point of the needle.

Straight pins

Straight pins are needed when basting or hemming as well as for minor seam repairs.

The typical pinhead on the straight pin is a blunt nub made of the same metal or with color ball heads made of plastic or glass. Straight pins come with pointed tips, and  ballpoint tips to use when working with knits.

Pincushion

Pincushions hold all those needles and straight pins close at hand. A pincushion that fits on the wrist is available.

Thread

Add spools of thread in common colors – black, white, navy blue, beige, etc. Cotton-wrapped polyester thread, often labeled “all-purpose” is suitable for most sewing projects. It is suitable for all types of fabrics and for both hand and machine sewing.

For a small emergency sewing kit, thread in basic colors can be wrapped around small bobbins or a piece of cardboard

Scissors

Fabric scissors are designed with longer blades and ergonomic handles and should be extremely sharp. Never use fabric scissors to cut paper; paper will quickly dull a pair of scissors. For the smaller sewing kit, small folding scissors are a space saver.

Nice extras

Measuring tape, pinking shears, a thimble, seam ripper, safety pins, needle threader.


Did you know …

The Chinese dowry typically includes beddings such as pillows, bolsters, comforter set, blankets, bed sheets, etc., all tied with red ribbons; new clothes in a suitcase for the bride; tea set for the wedding tea ceremony; baby bathtub, potty, face washbasin, tumblers, toothpaste and toothbrushes, mirror, comb; two pairs of red wooden clogs wedding slippers or bedroom slippers; a sewing basket with even numbered rolls of colourful thread, needles, pincushion, scissors, and sewing wax with auspicious words on it; and gold jewelry given by bride’s parents.

Early schoolteachers used thimbles to enforce strict discipline. The teacher would knock the disobedient student on the top of the head with a thimbled finger.

Bookbinders and shoemakers used needles made from hog bristles in the Middle Ages.

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Woven Sewing Basket.
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Traditional woven sewing basket with selection of sewing materials.
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Early 20th century sewing basket.

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