Stuck in Time

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Tiny pin cushions have a special charm, particularly the disk shape, with pins inserted around the perimeter. I always considered it an impractical design though, for sewing. Then one day I came across Mrs. Child’s comment in The Girl’s Own Book (1833) and my dim light bulb clicked on:

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What are called “bachelor’s pin-cushions” are made very thin so that gentlemen can carry them in their pockets…. Two round pieces of paste-board are covered with silk, and neatly sewed together, with one or two thin pieces of flannel between them. Of course only one circle of pins can be put in.

Well, of course! They were meant to be portable and keep pins securely tucked away, likely for use in one’s toilette, and not necessarily handy for needlework.

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Pin cushion in the shape of a watch, courtesy of Julie Hollick.

 

Maybe I fixated on this design because it’s extremely pretty, or maybe because it’s unusual to find that many of the same homemade craft surviving. However, according to a knowledgeable source, this particular one is not uncommon. Even a rare mutation – pink beaded! – has been sighted.

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Elegant antique watch pin cushion, with a beautiful bead pattern on the reverse, courtesy of Genevieve Cummins.

Hmm. Were they made by a single crafty lady? Several crafty sisters? A craft class? Who knows. But I did feel like there was probably a pattern that they all followed; the resemblance was quite striking. So I did what any good researcher does these days and hit Googlebooks.

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A project offered to the readers of Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1863.

Aha! It looked like Godey’s Lady’s Book could have been the source. But wait. As you know if you read the history of this sewing machine ad (or maybe you knew it anyway), if it was published once, it was quite likely “borrowed”  by – or from – someone else, too.

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From Peterson’s Magazine, 1862

Sure enough, it seems that Mrs. Jane Weaver of Peterson’s Magazine provided the same pattern the year before! Yep, word for word. Did Sarah borrow from Jane? Or did they both copy another pattern?

Even though I’d found American patterns for the pin cushions, it was unlikely that they were the source for the antique ones. Notice the numbers? Roman vs. Arabic numerals. The antique pin cushions I saw had Arabic; the published American patterns used Roman.

Perhaps they thought a little change would deflect any accusation of plagiarism. With almost everything in print copied by somebody, somewhere, who would even notice? The surviving examples were English – I think – so perhaps the original pattern was also.

Back to Googlebooks for an English source. And indeed, I located another pattern published earlier, in England. The Boys’ and Girls’ Companion featured the watch pin cushion, this time credited to Madame Eugenie, in 1857. And that’s where I met a dead end.

Madame Eugenie? I haven’t been able to locate a needlework author by that name, so maybe it was a pseudonym. There were quite a few frantically creative women trying to survive by publishing needlework books and magazines during those years, so she may remain anonymous.

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The preceding text reads “As the figures ought to be very neatly put in, some young ladies may like to ask an elder brother, or even a papa at leisure…” Right.

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“Maize” colored silk, turquoise & gold beads, and experimental trim.

For now anyway, the pattern for the antique “watches” with numbers and star design remains unidentified. Well then, back to creating my own (economy) version. Since I couldn’t find materials exactly like the originals, I had to do some contriving.

  • Silk satin > silk taffeta
  • India ink and pen > Micron 005 pen
  • Tiny gold and turquoise beads > the smallest Hobby Lobby carried
  • Card-board > cardboard (yay!)
  • Wool flannel > wool flannel (yay again!)
  • Compasses for drawing circles > washers from my husband’s toolbox
  • Gold cord > embroidery floss + threads pulled from the fabric + upholstery braid unwound
  • Silk ribbon > a strip of fabric
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Work in progress.

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Front and back all finished but for the single black bead.

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“Fastened on with stitches at the back all round, from one side to the other”

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A “few thicknesses of flannel” sandwiched between, as instructed.

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I did have silk ribbon. But it was so thin there’s noooo way it could have worked!

As per usual, the whole project turned out to be an excruciating exercise in “making things up as you go along.” What I learned:

  1. Compromise when it comes to materials.
  2. Make a pattern first. MAKE A PATTERN FIRST.
  3. Line the silk.
  4. Practice writing on paper. Then on fabric. Then give up and use a font on the computer and trace it.
  5. Press gathers flat.
  6. Use tinier stitches than seem necessary.
  7. Beads unpick faster than expected.
  8. The result will be bigger than expected.
  9. Beads roll over no matter how carefully anchored. It’s their nature.
  10. Did I mention make a pattern FIRST?

It was actually a lot of fun doing everything but the pen work since I’m not good with handwriting, and I couldn’t “ask an older brother or a papa.” Even unpicking beads (when they didn’t fit because I didn’t draw a pattern FIRST) was rather enjoyable; hearing the tiny taps when they fell off and hit the tray was ridiculously entertaining.

And just about the time I was finishing the little ring on the top, I chanced upon an even earlier pattern – and I wasn’t even looking for it!

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The Wreath, or Ornamental Artist, by A Lady, 1835.

Sadly, there were no pictures. And it was for the needle-book/pin cushion version. But it gives me hope that another pattern is out there, just waiting to be discovered. I’ll keep a watch.

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