I don’t remember where I first came across the term “lap-bag.” It was used in the infuriatingly casual way that long-dead authors have of assuming we know what they’re talking about, and I didn’t give it much thought. But when I recently came across the illustration below, c.1860, my reaction was – in the words of my 4-year-old grandson – “what is the heck of that?”
Of course I pursued the elusive lap-bag, only to discover it wasn’t so peculiar after all. It has a respectable history, especially if you consider it’s only a variation on a very useful, very humble, and very common garment. I think this young emigrant to Australia summed it up perfectly in 1850:
The ladies gave me a nice piece of print to make a lap-bag, which will be very handy on board ship, as it ties round the waist, and has little pockets to hold one’s thimble and scissors.
It’s simply a type of pocketed apron that was used for keeping sewing items handy, something especially helpful for girls’ sewing classes. The pinafore was another variation, recommended as early as the 1810s for plain needlework lessons, both in England and America.
Each girl should be provided with a pin-afore, or slip … taken in at the conclusion of school time…. The pin-afores are marked 1, 2, 3, &c. up to the number of girls that the desk contains: the number of the desk is also marked upon them, thus – 5/3, which would signify that the pin-afore belongs to the 5th girl in the third desk.
In 1858, when Alice Neal penned her reminiscences of Eliza Leslie for Godey’s Lady’s Book, she remembered her own school days.
As long ago as sewing was made a special branch of female education – and we leave our readers to infer the date [she was born in 1828] – the Wednesday afternoons at the school which I attended in Boston were enlivened by reading aloud. The circle of little people, with their pink and blue chintz “lap-bags,” a style of sewing receptacle entirely unique, stitched away on their sheets and patchwork, while the older girls read in turn.
A children’s story from 1871 tells how “The girls all had to be provided with lap-bags, worn like aprons, with the ends brought up and stitched together. These were to keep the work from getting soiled, and hold the thimble, cotton, needles, scissors, etc.” School inventories included lap-bags, and one teacher explained,
These little lap-bags,” remarked the teacher, are the very first articles I teach the children in the Primary class to make; and they use them through all the grades until they graduate from the cutting department. Each bag is labelled, and at the close of the sewing hour the work is neatly rolled up, put inside, then collected in these large baskets.
Some later sources called them sewing aprons, but these matched the description as being aprons “made of extra length to allow the turning up of a quarter yard or so for a pocket.” After reading all about these receptacles, I decided to attempt my own. It’s quicker and cheaper to make things in miniature, so doll size it would be!
But what to use? I found references to brown holland (unbleached linen), calico prints, Scotch gingham (a better quality gingham), and pink and blue chintz. My obsession with charity sewing schools inclined me toward the brown holland, since that was the utility fabric they suggested. I just happily happened to have a bit of it with the original glaze (a glossy sizing) remaining, so the next step was to make sense of the directions that accompanied the illustration. Simple. For most people.
Next came the marking. As much as I wanted to follow advice and place the numbers where they’d show when the work was folded, I couldn’t make it work. But my doll will still take her place as the “fifth girl in the third row.”
Trust writers of the era to impart moral virtue into anything that would hold it. I don’t mind, at least not when they’re praising hand sewing.
If it is best to train the child along aesthetic lines in any phase of art, then let him be trained to appreciate and prefer a piece of true art in needle-work, even plain sewing, over a wholesale manufactured article which may be bought at cheap rates.
Let me illustrate by a school girl’s sewing apron, neatly though plainly made, hand-sewed by herself, and appreciated because she wove into its very stitches her own power and love of doing a thing for herself, and, too, having done it the best she could, over a very elaborate one selected from a whole boxful in a store marked “your choice for 10c.”
As aesthetic development and culture help to make a person a better person, so sewing can be made to help a girl to become a better girl and a more powerful and valuable woman to society.
Why not turn up your nose at that 10¢ store-bought apron, make your own, and become a powerful woman! You’ll be glad you did.
If you have a nose for rabbit trails, even the simplest search can make you lose your way – if not your head! I was trying to pinpoint a date for the common use of machine-made pins, but ended up following the trail from factories to inventories to short stories. The stories were the most fun, and I thought I’d share this (edited for length!) one.
THE HISTORY OF A PIN. (The Portland Transcript, 1863)
BY EDWARD P. WILSON.
“Est natura hominum novitalis avida.” [People crave new stuff.]
While walking down the street other day, something bright, embedded in the dirt between the bricks, attracted my attention; and stooping I extracted from the sand an old headless pin. It was not one of the family of pins with which we are now familiar – pins never lose their heads now a days – but one of the old style, whose head was originally formed of fine coiled brass wire; but now it was headless, crooked, rusty and worn: one of those sort of pins which in my school-boy days we were wont to call “old maids’ pins,” and which every single lady felt in duty bound, on the penalty of endless celibacy, to throw over her left shoulder.
As I sat in my arm-chair after dinner enjoying my cigar, I drew it leisurely from the lapel of my coat – a bachelor’s invariable pin cushion – and examined it more minutely. What would I give to hear the history of this old pin!
As I continued to smoke, the pin seemed to grow strangely bright, as seen through the incense which curled around me; and then it seemed to increase in size until it resembled some old, sallow man, whose back was bent by the cares and sorrows of three-score years, who stood twinkling at me through the smoky vapor; and at length I became so accustomed to regard it as human, that I was not surprised when it addressed me as follows:
“Many years have passed away since I was young and bright. I remember the day, when by a clip of a huge pair of shears, I first received a distinctive existence. Pins were worth something in those days, and were not turned out upon the world by machinery, as they are now in Connecticut, at the rate of ten tons per week. We were all made elaborately by hand, going through fourteen different processes in our construction. It was in the old Greenwich Prison, New York, where the first pins were made on this continent. We were all nicely arranged by hand in our papers, like files of soldiers. Fortunately for me, I occupied the position of captain in the first row of my paper, and stood the best chance of being soonest called into the active duties of life. After being duly packed, we were removed to a little store on Broadway, near Castle Garden. I well remember the looks of my first master. He was a little wizen-faced man, who kept a small variety store in those days.
Many long months I laid upon his dark shelves, fearing that I should spend my days in rest and inaction. But at length my days of imprisonment were over. One day a young woman came into my master’s store and made several small purchases of ribbon and edging, and just as she had started to go out, she turned back and asked for a paper of pins. How I thrilled with joy as my master placed the paper in which I had been so long imprisoned in her hand.
My young mistress took me to her home on one of the short streets in the vicinity of the East River. I had scarcely entered the house, which was a neat tenement of the Dutch style, before I became convinced that preparations were being made for some great event in the household. Judge of my surprise when I ascertained by the gossip of the servants that it was the marriage of my young mistress.
All day the household was in commotion, in baking, dusting, and arranging for the happy occasion; and when in the evening my mistress came to her room where I had been lying upon her dressing table, to put on her wedding dress, I was made happy by being called into service. Having otherwise completed her attire, which was elaborate for those days, although it might provoke the mirth of the fashionable belle of the present day, she took from her drawer a beautiful silk zone or belt, which she clasped around her waist, and fastened it with me.
As she stood before her glass to adjust her dress before making her appearance in the drawing room below, I could not help feeling a silent pride in her beauty. I had not thought her pretty when I had first seen her, but as she stood there, I could not but pronounce her beautiful. When the guests had all retired, and my master and mistress were left alone, I listened, as I stuck in a pin-cushion upon her dressing-table, to all their plans of life and happiness.
It was indeed a bright and beautiful scheme; but I am sorry to say that I lived to see many of their pretty plans fade away, and smiles give place to tears. I remained in this family nearly twenty years, occupying various places in the attire of the different members of the family; sometimes idly dropped upon the floor, and then again picked up to fasten some article of clothing.
When at length there were little ones around the hearth, I fastened their tiny garments, and sometimes, unwillingly, scratched their little chubby bodies [!!!], causing many a kick and scream, which were attributed either to colic or anger, according to the disposition of the person who had them in keeping.
One day as their eldest daughter was out shopping, I fell noiselessly from the bosom of her dress, where I had been carelessly stuck, upon the sidewalk of Broadway. It may be thought that a pin is incapable of feeling, but I felt the deepest regret when by this unlucky accident, I was severed from this family in whose service I had spent so many days; and I could not but feel a silent resentment against my mistress for fastening me so carelessly, as I had been a faithful and uncomplaining servant of hers from the very day of her birth.
I remained many weary days lying upon the sidewalk unseen, although thousands of people walked over me daily; and I sadly feared that I should be trodden into the dirt, and thus remain entombed the remainder of my days. But my fears proved groundless.
One day, after I had almost given up hope of being discovered, a little, short, dried up old man came along with his eyes upon the sidewalk, as though in search of pins, and deliberately picked me up and placed me in the lapel of his rusty coat.
I soon discovered that my new master was an old bachelor, of most eccentric manners and mode of living, who lodged in an attic on the Bowery. Once I heard him say mournfully, that he should not have been there alone, aimless in life, if it had not been for her, from which I inferred that some unhappy attachment in early life had made him misanthropic.
I remained in his service many years, sometimes fastening ugly rents in his garments; and at length he removed to Boston, where he naturally enough became more morose than ever. [!!!]
One day as he was walking upon the Common, he attempted to fasten his collar, which had an ugly habit of creeping up over his ears, when he pricked his finger with me, and threw me spitefully upon the ground, where I remained about one week.
One day a little girl on her way to school, came along and picked me up, repeating to herself the childish couplet—
‘Tis a sin to steal a pin But ‘tis a greater to steal a tater
and took me to her home where I remained several years, being used principally to fasten the clothing of her doll.
One day in summer, her brother was sent off on a vacation to a little town in the State of Maine, and I was brought into requisition to fasten his collar. I remained in his service but a few weeks, but this was the most trying period of my life. Sometimes I soared to enormous heights in the tail of his kite, sometimes I was used to pierce flies and other innocent insects, and at length he used me to fish for minnows in a beautiful bay which indents the town where he was stopping.
There I received that ugly bend which you see in my back, being bent to resemble a fish-hook. After he had thus cruelly treated me, my young master threw me carelessly upon the beach, with a piece of cotton thread which he had used as a fishing line, tied around my throat. Here I lay in the sun many long days, and as the place was not frequented, I well-nigh despaired of ever attracting the attention of any living being. But I was not doomed to spend the remainder of my days in inactivity.
One moonlight night in autumn, a lady and gentleman came upon the beach to court the cool breeze, engaged in earnest conversation, over the sand where I was lying. The lady was young and pretty, and dressed in weeds which betokened widowhood. Her drapery was long and flowing, and at length as she passed over me, I, being bent, caught in some point-lace on her skirt, and was taken along with her. Her companion was a large, well-formed man, whom she called Judge Jones.
They walked together a long time, arm in arm, but at length the Judge, very much to my surprise, withdrew his arm, and placed it around the widow’s waist, who very properly remonstrated against such a proceeding; but I observed that she made no effort to remove it, although she stated very emphatically that it should not remain there. Just then the couple approached a large rock embedded in the sand, and the widow complaining of being fatigued, they sat down there to rest.
Here the Judge not only retained his arm in the position which was so offensive to his companion, but even ventured to kiss her, an impropriety which I cannot but condemn, although I must confess that I have been an unwilling spectator to many such a scene.
At this moment his companion grew very indignant, shedding tears and declaring that she was certain that the Judge meant to offend her, which imputation he very warmly denied, although I observed that he repeated the offense.
At this, my mistress grew still more indignant, and dropping her head upon her companion’s shoulder, emphatically demanded the meaning of such conduct. Here the Judge drew her still more closely to him, and said in a subdued and tremulous voice, “My dear madame I have long wished for an opportunity to tell you that — ”
Here the writer’s head fell heavily upon an adjoining table, and gathering himself up he found that his cigar had gone out, and that he himself had been idly napping, with the old rusty pin between his fingers.
It has ever since been a question of great interest to him, what it really was that the Judge was going to tell to his companion, and how the old pin lost its head—and finally came to be lying in the streets of Cambridge, but he has vainly striven to solve them, as the old pin has ever since maintained a most unbroken silence.
Should these facts ever come to the knowledge of the writer, however, they will be duly chronicled in the columns of the Transcript.
What an original idea: a story written by a pin! Well … not exactly. See this snippet from an 1835 English composition manual on suggested topics.
As for pinning down a date for the common use of machine-made pins, there is good information out there – if you want to stick to the subject and not wander around. Here is a good place to start for a more serious approach.
So when might I have found machine-made pins in a sewing basket or on a dressing table? It seems that by the late 1830s technology and economics combined to phase out skilled labor in favor of automation. Pins were no longer likely to lose their heads. And if I could just stay focused, I might not either. But where’s the fun in that?
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
As per usual, the whole project turned out to be an excruciating exercise in “making things up as you go along.” What I learned:
Compromise when it comes to materials.
Make a pattern first. MAKE A PATTERN FIRST.
Line the silk.
Practice writing on paper. Then on fabric. Then give up and use a font on the computer and trace it.
Press gathers flat.
Use tinier stitches than seem necessary.
Beads unpick faster than expected.
The result will be bigger than expected.
Beads roll over no matter how carefully anchored. It’s their nature.
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!
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.
Knotting was indispensable to the happiness of womankind in Barbara’s days, as well as to the reputation of a modish woman…and kept her fair self out of mischief….
“Heyday! cousin, ” was Lord Castlemaine’s ejaculation; “at that work, too? They tell me the French ladies do it in their sleep.”
I don’t know what Lord Castlemaine thought about French ladies, but he obviously had issues with knotting – and so do I! All right, he was talking about a different kind of knotting, but I do think thread should behave with propriety, always willing and able to oblige. However, in my search for how thread was “packaged” in the early 19th century, it was behaving knottily.
A few years ago I was trying to assemble a collection of sewing supplies c.1820 for an exhibit, and it occurred to me that the ordinary wooden spools (reels) in my basket were an anachronism. Would a lady of that era have popped into a haberdashery shop for a spool of thread to hem a gown? Or would she have bought a skein? A ball? A length wrapped in paper or wound around a card?
How should I store my thread? It ought to be simple to settle, just ask around or try Google to learn how sewing thread was packaged, sold, and stored in the early 1800s. Nope. It was a knotty problem and I was baffled.
Period merchant accounts mentioned skeins, weights, and quantities of sewing thread, but that didn’t tell me what I wanted to know. What would the thread actually look like when Some Lady brought it home from shopping or stuffed it in her workbag at the end of the day? (No, don’t say tangled!) After years of drooling over images of antique sewing boxes, you’d think I’d have spotted quite a few that still had the undoubtedly original working thread stashed inside. But I didn’t. A little more fruitless searching, and I decided to shelve the question.
Until recently. I once saw some lovely antique painted “thread papers” for sale which I always regretted not buying (although I’d have had to sell a body part to do it). These long strips of paper with delicate watercolor floral designs were obviously homemade, perhaps meant for a gift. They contained embroidery silks, not plain sewing thread, but I never forgot their charm. So when I came across some very old, although homelier, thread papers for sale, I couldn’t resist – and that revitalized my quest for thread packaging!
The first mention I came across (in my admittedly limited resources) was in connection with the tragic and mysterious poet Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770). Not only was he a literary prodigy, but apparently quite a clever forger as well. He invented a 15th century monk and wrote poetry in his name, then claimed to have discovered these writings on his mother’s parchment thread papers.
…one day his eye was caught by one of these thread papers; that he found not only the writing to be very old and the character very different from common characters; but the subject therein treated was different from common subjects; – that he began to question his mother what these thread papers were; how she got them; and from whence they came; and upon further enquiry was led to a full discovery of all the parchments which remained. [The rest, according to him, unfortunately having been used by his father to cover students’ books.]
There were other references to thread papers as well.
A witty bit from 1769:
A waggish correspondant informs us, that the Mile-End P—n is to be cut into slips to make thread-papers for the maids-of-honor.
Some self-deprecation from 1775:
…a small number of young ladies do me the inexpressible honour to smooth their tuckers and their ribbands in my book; to make thread papers of it; or to tear it into pieces, or papillots [curl papers], or to make their thimbles fit.
In 1795, a scathing rejection for Miss Sparkes from the Monthly Mirror:
“A Tale of Times past,” would never be read in times present. Would not Letitia Sparkes (who says she works for the shops) have been much better employed in making a dozen shirts, and getting the money for them, than in groping her way through “long galleries and dismal vaults;” and listening to “tales prophetic, from shadowy forms.” However, Letitia, you may send for your “forty leaves:” they’ll make excellent thread-papers.
Court testimony from 1804:
What was in the drawer in which he appeared to expect to find it? There were Five or Six Hens Eggs, Thread Papers, and Things of that Sort Belonging to his Wife.
From Sir Walter Scott in 1815:
…my uncle, the alderman, proposed to me the only daughter of old Sloethorn, the great wine-merchant, rich enough to play at spancounter [old English game] with moidores [Portugese coins], and make threadpapers of bank notes.
A bit of satire in 1815:
Woe unto literature in these days of degeneracy! woe unto the Nine Muses and their suitors! how many epics have stood between the candle and candlestick? how many histories have been employed in twist tobacco? and how many philosophers have been made into thread papers, their arguments into paper kites, and their conclusions into three-penny crackers on a birthday?
A lament from 1838:
Cooks and sedentary ladies addicted to needlework have been Thalabas in this kind of destroying. Your thread-papers have been the very devil! If our old friend Mr. Brunel had invented his pretty little process of putting sewing-thread up in reels and balls a hundred years ago, many a family manuscript, many an interesting scrap, might have escaped the pitiless shears. But it is vain to regret the past! [Ain’t it though?]
Humorous fiction in 1844:
Lady Betty was mightily pleased to see Lord Castlemaine so soon back again, and glanced at Barbara, who was knotting fringe, a species of work about as useless as the tatting, tapetrimming, herring-boning, and, with respect be it hinted, lambs-wooling, which from time to time have employed civilised society with almost as much regularity as the spinning jennies do the poorer classes. (And when we talk of the labours of factory girls, how we overlook those of modern ladies under the banners of Miss Lambert¹!) And knotting was indispensible to the happiness of womankind in Barbara’s days, as well as to the reputation of a modish woman, who, when not tambouring, knotting, or embroidering, amused her leisure, and kept her fair self out of mischief, by drawing a bandalore [yo-yo] up and down.
“Heyday! cousin,” was Lord Castlemaine’s ejaculation; “at that work, too? They tell me the French ladies do it in their sleep.”
“‘Tis the ton, surely, or Bab would not do it,” said Lady Betty, wishing to set off the dowdy Barbara; “and see the thread papers she paints,” added the old lady, showing up a volume of those useful, discarded, ever to be lamented article, with a bird with a scarlet beak and a blue breast at one end, and a flower, orange, red and purple, at the other, all varnished with a glaze of gum arabic.
Lord Castlemaine praised the as very neat, and saw some sense in those – the knotting he condemned as an extravagant waste of time. But he was so complimentary to the thread papers, that Barbara, with a little persuasion, was induced to show her cousin her collection of…” [of…? If you’re curious, you can always look it up!]
More specifics on these papers from fiction, 1868:
She is able to divert herself most days with her thread-papers, as Madam, her mother, will be mighty glad to hear, for the head and the heart ain’t none of them over-bad when a miss can settle to make thread-papers…. Milly was in the act of making her thread-papers – cutting down strips of gaudy card-board, painted with staring flowers, birds, butterflies, and pasting them together in the requisite shape.
Well, enough of thread papers. They were around before, during, and after my period of interest; whether artsy or functional, they were probably used most often for embroidery threads, although I could certainly add some to my workbox display. What about sewing thread for plain work or dressmaking?
An Encyclopædia of Domestic Econcomy, 1815, states, “Cotton sewing thread, usually called sewing cotton, has of late been made so beautiful by machinery, and its utility and cheapness are so well known, that it has, in a measure, superseded the use of linen thread formerly used. It is used in every house, and in the making of almost every kind of clothing.”
That was helpful in affirming what textile historians tell us, that the change from linen to cotton for sewing thread happened in the late 18th-early 19th century. But how would you find it in a shop?
Now let’s see whether you were just skimming the quotes to be a polite blog reader, or were paying attention. Did you catch the reference to Brunel²?
His biography informs us that, “A machine for twisting cotton-thread and forming it into balls was also amongst the earliest of Brunel’s inventions in this country. The impulse given by this machine to the employment of cotton can now scarcely be credited. The little balls were very elegant in form; and from the manner in which the thread was wound, they presented the appearance of net-work, or ribbons of lace. The Machine measured the length of the thread which it wound, and proportioned the size of the ball to its weight and fineness.”
They must have been awfully pretty, those little balls of thread, to merit so much acclaim. Rees’s 1819 Cyclopædia agreed, “cotton thread for sewing, mending, and domestic use, is wound into balls of a figure resembling a cask, and the many intersection of the thread are so managed as to produce a very beautiful appearance.”
If the illustration below is an example, I do think they’re lovely! Illustrated ads for sewing cotton wound in a fancier lattice design appeared in periodicals from 1819 to 1827. Here’s one from La Belle Assemblée, 1819. The inventor was Edmund Naish, Quaker, who patented his method in 1818.
I didn’t hold out much hope of ever seeing one of these lacy little balls, so maybe you can understand my delight when I saw these!
So it appears that sewing thread, long sold in skeins (or hand-wound balls), was available for purchase as machine-wound balls sometime after 1802, and the fancy patterns in the next decade. But what about wooden spools?
In The Paisley Thread Industry (1907), the author says, “The year 1812 may be taken as the earliest date upon which Clark’s sewing thread was placed upon the market.” He goes on to state
The James Clark of Messrs. J. & J. Clark was the first to introduce spool cotton sewing thread. We are indebted to his son, Mr. James Clark, of Chapel House, for an explanation of the circumstances of this very important and interesting development. Mr. Clark says: – “Originally the cotton thread was sold in hanks or skeins, and then ladies had to wind it into little balls, as they generally wind a cut of wool yarn at the present day. Wishing to convenience his fair customers, James would, on selling a skein of cotton thread, sit down at a weaver’s pirn wheel, and wind the thread upon a spool, for which he charged a half-penny, but that half-penny he refunded when the empty spool was returned to him.
“The spools cost sixpence a dozen, and were ordered by James, to the extent of half a gross at a time, from a wood turner name Robert Paul, which he carried home in his coat pocket, to wind thread thereon by his own hand, if desired, after the sale of a skein had been effected by him.”
So I suppose you could have retail-wound wooden spools shortly after 1812 – if you lived in Paisley, Scotland! However, writing in 1861, William Weild gives a slightly different history.
Previous to the present century, sewing thread was made up for sale in hanks, and it was not till about 1814, that the plan of winding thread on spools or reels, technically called “spooling” was introduced by Mr. James Carlile, of Paisley….The spools commonly used are made of wood, more or less ornamented, and some also of metal, bone, ivory, and other materials. Wood spools were first turned by hand; but the immense demand for them called attention to the necessity for self-acting machinery for producing them in a rapid manner, and this was invented in 1846 by Mr. John Clark of Glasgow.
Here is another (mind-boggling) account of how was thread was made into balls and spools, the greatest problem being constantly breaking thread. From an 1846 SPCK publication:
The writer visited a sewing thread factory at Manchester…. The process of forming the thread into balls or reels is, performed by young women with an almost magical celerity. Each young woman is seated at a kind of turning-lathe; she seizes the end of the thread, and attaches it to a rod of steel, sets this spinning, and in an instant a ball of cotton appears at the end of the rod; the rotation is stopped, a blue ticket is inserted at the end, a further quantity of thread wound to secure the ticket, and the ball is finished. The size of the ball is regulated with extreme accuracy by the eye. The number of balls to the pound varies from 16 to 600; and the young woman being told to produce a certain number to the pound, makes a few, weighs them until she has got the exact size by weight; after this she relies entirely upon her eye, and so accurate is her judgement, that the variation of the balls in weight is very trifling. The cotton is wound on reels with the same surprising celerity…. Reeling is not such rapid work as balling.
Who knew? I certainly didn’t. Can you imagine what that must have been like, eye-balling 600 balls of thread? All. Day. Long. Perhaps they could also do it in their sleep. God bless them.
And now, if you’ve made it this far into an excruciatingly arcane subject, I will share my last two discoveries. If I had found them earlier, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with all the rest.
The first is an excerpt from Our Village, by Mary Russell Mitford.
Everything in the one store which it boasts, kept by Martha Deane, linen-draper and haberdasher, is dear and good, as things were wont to be. You may actually get there thread made of flax, from the gouty, uneven, clumsy, shiny fabric, yclept whited-brown, to the delicate commodity of Lisle, used for darning muslin. I think I was never more astonished than when, on asking, from the mere force of habit, for thread, I was presented, instead of the pretty lattice-wound balls or snowy reels of cotton, with which that demand is usually answered, with a whole drawerful of skeins, peeping from their blue papers – such skeins as in my youth a thrifty maiden would draw into the nicely-stitched compartments of that silken repository, a housewife, or fold into a congeries of graduated thread-papers, “fine by degrees, and beautifully less.”
Well, well. She covered it all: paper-wrapped skeins, balls, reels, thread papers, and one I didn’t explore (since they are so well-known already), the silken repository, or housewife (hussif). See Sarah’s charming “repository” of blue and cream below, with matching blue threads all ready for use!
And the accompanying little bag with her name embroidered on the front:
But the last is an image, c.1810-1815. From the V&A, it’s the picture I’d always hoped to find: a thread-stocked workbox. The little “tickets” are pink, with the thread size stamped on them.
To wrap it all up, I now have a better idea of how to keep thread in my workbox or basket if I want to stay true (sort of) to the times. It’s a relief to untangle the knotty problem – and know that I can sleep peacefully at night.
¹ Miss Lambert was a prolific and popular author of needlework books such as this one.
² For some stranger-than-fiction history, read about Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the gold sovereign magic trick – and how it could have killed him!
I’ll be sewing in Captain Nichols’ room, which will be outfitted for the 1910s with a 1914 hand crank machine, Miss Leah (a 1916 dress form), and an early garment drafting system that looks like a torture device, as well as all the hand sewing accoutrements necessary for a visiting seamstress.
I’ll be making doll clothes from patterns in the Mary Frances Sewing Book. Or at least fudgeling. I’m better at that than sewing!
When Winnie the Pooh ate all the honey from the jar he had intended for Eeyore’s birthday present, he decided to give him a Useful Pot instead. I’ve always loved that story. Everybody needs a “Useful Pot to put things in.”
Like Eeyore, I’m awfully fond of Useful Pots – and boxes, and bags, and – well, anything that will hold red balloons or other Stuff. I found this pretty little box a long time ago, and even though it was missing any contents, the workmanship was neat and the condition was wonderful – and it had a key! My plan was to make period appropriate Stuff to go inside. Stuff I could actually use instead of conserve. And like all my projects, it’s taken a whooooole lot longer than I thought.
It probably dates mid- to late 19th century, although I tend to think later. I don’t know if it was professionally made and sold, but it seems to have a hint of “home-made” about it. It’s smaller than average, but everything about it is sturdy, smooth, and fits together perfectly. There was no need to refinish or even re-paper it.
There are three kinds of paper lining: the orange you see above (which was a added in its youth), the blue on the underside of the tray, and traces of an original gold-stamped pattern in deep pink, just peeking out from under the orange in places, all typical of the era.
What went in a workbox? It seems pretty obvious, but I like Useful Lists as well as boxes. The Workwoman’s Guide, c1840, devotes a paragraph to the subject.
A work-box, or basket, should be large enough to hold a moderate supply of work and all its requisites, without being of such a size as to be inconvenient to carry about, or lift with ease. There should be in it divisions or partitions, as they assist in keeping it in order; but some persons are apt to run into the extreme of over-partitioning their boxes, which defeats its own purpose and becomes troublesome; this should be carefully avoided. A work-box should contain six or eight of the useful sized white reel sewing cottons, black cotton, and silks, white, black, and coloured, both round, and for darning; a few useful tapes, bobbin, galloon, buttons of all kinds, including thread, pearl, metal, and black; also, hooks and eyes. An ample needlebook, containing a page of kerseymere for each sized needle, not omitting the darning, glove, stay, and worsted or carpet needles. There are various kinds of scissors; the most useful are, A large pair, for cutting out linen; A medium size, for common use; A small pair with rounded points; A smaller pair with sharper points, for cutting out muslin work &c.; Lace scissors with a flat knob at one of the points; Button-hole scissors. A pincushion, an emery cushion, a waxen reel for strengthening thread, a stiletto, bodkins, a thimble, a small knife, and a yard measure, made like a carpenter’s foot rule, only with nails instead of inches marked upon it….”
And in 1848, with true Victorian prolixity (but who am I to scoff?), The Seamstress advises
The materials employed in the construction of articles, which come under the denomination of plain needlework, are so various, that a mere list of them would occupy more than half our space; and they are so well known, that no necessity exists for naming them in detail. [She then proceeds to do so.] We shall therefore proceed, at once, to give plain directions, by which any lady may soon become expert in this necessary department of household uses, merely observing, that a neat work-box, well supplied with all the implements required – including knife, scissors (of at least three sizes) needles and pins in sufficient variety, bodkins, thimbles, thread and cotton, bobbins, marking silks, black lead pencils, india rubber, &c., should be provided, and be furnished with a lock and key, to prevent the contents being thrown into confusion by children [mea culpa], servants [don’t I wish], or unauthorized intruders [like a cat?].
The empty thread compartments were my first challenge. Finding authentic period spools was impossible, so if I wanted a matched set of “reels” I’d have to make my own. I found a swan design that I liked, and invented “Swann’s Best Cotton” and “Swann’s Finest Silk.” I pasted them on wooden spools and can now wind any thread I like onto them. (We know how soon that’s gonna happen, right?)
While the inventor’s genius was flaring within me, I decided to patent some hooks and eyes as well. A little research turned up Mary Jenkins, a widow, who actually DID patent her superior hooks and eyes in the 1840s. (Wouldn’t you love to know her story?) I have an antique box of hooks and eyes with no “brand,” so I just added her name to make my own version. A salute to female ingenuity!
Now what about female persistence in the face of adversity? Idiot that I am, I also wanted some silk winders. A “homemade Victorian craft look” was what I was aiming for, not easy when you have no talent for art. I drew a pattern and my helpful husband cut them out of matboard for me. An 1840s French needlework magazine supplied the floral graphics which I scanned and tidied up. I added them to the winders and watercolored the flowers. Yes, I can color pictures! So far, so good. But then I thought they needed gold edges – mistake! It took forever to paint them all on, both sides, straight, and I will never try that again.
No self-respecting workbox could be useful without a needlebook. Punched paper was all the rage mid to late century, and I thought that would suit the style of the box better than something fancier in silk. The floral pattern is from the Antique Pattern Library. The interior has wool flannel for holding needles, and the letters are from a Victorian marking pattern. Ok, the letters weren’t much different, but it allowed me the illusion of historicity!
One more project was on my list. I love the little walnut sewing trinkets that were popular, from fancy etuis to those made-at-home with scraps – which now sell for a small fortune as primitives! So I took a half shell and stuffed it with velvet covered wool, and then trimmed it with a green silk ribbon to complement the other colors. It kind of looks like I’ve turned a walnut into a strawberry disguised as a pincushion. Maybe I was hungry at the time.
A tassel for the key helps keep track of it. I’m also playing with the idea of a (removeable) label for the top and/or a card tucked inside. I’ve seen an antique with “Work-Box” on the lid which really caught my fancy but was out of my budget. The graphics I experimented with above are all authentic designs (Ackermann’s Repository, etc.). But I may not bother, since I’m debating taking it to the next heritage festival with a FOR SALE sign. This one took me so long that now I’ve got another box waiting its turn at rehab and I’m running out of room!
In the meantime, all the buttons, wax, scissors, bodkins and other requisites for lady’s work can stay tidy in a Useful Box.
Nineteenth century ladies, the ones who were fortunate enough to have time for crafts, didn’t only do needlework. The local “Ladies’ Warehouse” must have been as packed with goodies as our craft stores today. Just scanning a list of genteel amusements is pretty overwhelming: shell work, bead work, feather pictures, seaweed art, leather flowers, potichomanie (I dare you to guess that one!), wax fruit, plaster casting, Japan painting, fern printing, glass staining, and countless other projects kept hands busy.
For this project, I was inspired by the little paper boxes that have survived, usually rather tattered and worn, and the quaint phrases that commonly appeared on souvenirs and gifts. Suitable for buttons, needles, etc., it only required a papier-mâché box, glue, paint, Dresden trim, and patterned paper. Oh, and I used a purchased label, gussied up with a gold pen.
At first I thought I’d hit on something fun to sell at craft fairs, but like all my endeavors, this one took at least five times longer than expected. Assuming I sold any, I’d be making a few cents an hour – probably less than this woman did. The picture is from Harper’s Bazar, 1868, and illustrates various occupations of modern women.
“A large number, 1400 or 1500 females, are employed in the manufacture of paper-boxes. These are mostly very young persons, and the average of wages paid is about $50 per week. The work is simple and requires little practical knowledge, and girls are worth as much to an employer in their second week as in their second year at this work.”
Well, I’d like to think my worth would increase with my practice, but I doubt I’ll find out. This box will serve decorative rather than functional purposes, and express my esteem rather than enhance it – I hope!
When I read about the Great Lady’s Magazine Stitch Off a few weeks ago, I knew it was something I wanted to do. Firstly, because I love early women’s magazines; secondly, because of the Jane Austen connection; and finally, because I could suit my project to my skill level – dabbler seems fitting.
A two-inch flower on a plain muslin pocket handkerchief, worked in a simple chainstitch with some wonderful Au Ver à Soie, would be just right. And perhaps some historical touches to set the mood.
I had visions of myself sitting at my worktable to pounce the pattern, then deftly working the little sprig with an elderly tambour hook. That might occupy me for an hour or two, then I’d pop it in the mail to the Chawton House Library “Emma at 200” exhibit. How hard could it be?
Well, Fantasy was introduced to Reality fairly soon. I realized that the pouncing powder I’ve had (unopened) for 20 years required a little more research and practice to use than I wanted for such a small project. What’s so bad about using a disappearing marking pen after all?
So next came the tambour hook I’d been dying to try. It seems there’s more to using one than just picking it up and poking it in and out. Not to mention that the ancient point had a tendency to shred a few threads along the way. What’s wrong with using a needle?
Ok, I started with the needle and made it about halfway before I thought: ick! No two chainstitches were alike. I picked it out and decided to try a sort of running/darning stitch, also common on period pieces. Bleh. It looked worse than the first attempt, so I picked all that out and decided it would have to be chainstitch after all.
Well, I did better on the third try. But when I was almost done, I felt something didn’t look right. Maybe you spotted it already? I had put the muslin back in the hoop underside up. And there it would remain. Six hours into this two-inch project, I was not doing it over.
The hemming went better than the embroidery. I didn’t really mind that one side had a wider hem than the other three. But the flower centers looked a little plain. I thought I’d try some microscopic drawn thread work. Isn’t it amazing how fearless ignorance can be?
Another six hours later I was done. Then I remembered my calling. Plain needlework! I could not send this handkerchief out into the world without marking it. A silk monogram was beyond my ability, and turkey red thread would be out of place on this mouchoir de poche. So I used blue cotton (I’ve seen real examples) and started on my initials in the opposite corner.
It hurt. Not just squinting to see the threads, but to realize I’d placed the “M” too close to the corner to add my other initial. It kind of looks like I meant it to be that way, so I won’t tell anyone.
P.S. Check out the Stitch Off Facebook page too, you’ll see some gorgeous examples of embroidery by people who really know how. In color, no less! Maybe you’ll be inspired to participate?
It’s time to jump forward a hundred years from the subject of my last post. Here’s a peek at a pleasing, albeit staged, scene of domestic happiness. I love these old stereoviews because the photographers often took such pains with the props, trying to tell a story. And if the subject is sewing or 19th century domestic life, that makes me very happy!
In this picture, it looks like Mama is mending Papa’s pants. Her daughter seems barely old enough to hold a needle, but is earnestly attempting to help. Is Mama wearing an apron over her silk dress? It certainly looks like she’s sporting a fashionable chignon. (That late ’60s, early ’70s hairstyle was sometime over-the-top and subject to ridicule.)
She may be seated in a woven cane chair, and she definitely has a sewing basket beside her on the table. It looks like the kind with small pockets fixed to the sides. The little girl’s checked dress may be an apron or pinafore, though I can’t quite tell.
This card is dated 1872, but I’ve seen another version dated 1871. Mama sewing, daughter sewing: seeing double indeed!
Sherry sews seashells, too! I was tickled to hear from a reader who sent a photo of her seashell pincushion, and couldn’t resist sharing. She did have to add another layer of fabric to make the “bag” for it, since the directions (unsurprisingly) left a little to be desired.