— by Christian de Holacombe and Michaela de Neuville
Putting together a period workbox seems to be an exercise in gathering little clues from a lot of different sources. So I was delighted when I saw what an old friend of mine, Mistress Michaela de Neuville (OL) had put together for a needlework demonstration. Her research is always excellent, and she agreed to collaborate with me on this article. Michaela’s basket is on our cover, its contents are shown again on p.4, and her needlebook is this issue’s project.
In my admittedly rather limited research, good written sources on period needlework tools are few. As penance for whatever needlework sins I’ve committed, I re-read the one I have, Gertrude Whiting’s Old-Time Tools & Toys of Needlework, and was just as frustrated by it as I was the first time I read it. In fairness, the book was written in 1928, and it shares that era’s attitude that “old times” and “tradition” were eternal and unchanging, so it mixes centuries indiscriminately. It also seems to assume that life began in 1600. Probably it’s a better resource for collectors of 19th-century needlework tools than for us.
The best source of information on period workboxes, therefore, is paintings and engravings. While the basket or box is always a small detail, usually over in a corner of the picture, sometimes you can make out details of its contents. So let’s see what we can find.
BASKETS & BOXES
What types of baskets and boxes were commonly used as work boxes? Here are a couple of examples of what seems to be the most common type of workbasket: shallow and round, often with the top rim somewhat larger than the base. These are fairly easy to find at craft stores. Shallow baskets also seem to be the most common type in pictures showing other textile crafts, such as weaving or spinning. Sometimes all you can see in them is a pair of scissors or shears and some balls of yarn or thread. Often there are napkins or pieces of cloth hanging over the basket edges as well, either a cover or perhaps a work in progress.
Sewing boxes and small chests also appear in period illustrations. One common type is a round or oval box made from a thin piece of wood steamed and bent around. There are also shallow square boxes rather like a modern cigar box, boxes like miniature trunks with round-topped lids, and a painting from the 1630s shows a small chest of nine small drawers (left, below), with a flat front panel hinged at the bottom to secure the drawers for traveling. You also see boxes with slanted tops (below right). These look a lot like writing boxes, and sometimes (as here) have a padded top that can be used as a sewing pillow. The lady in the portrait on this page is the wife of Philipp Gundelius, painted by Hieronymus Beck in about 1575, with some of her sewing tools, in unusually good detail. She has a small bentwood or ivory box containing little balls of thread: on the table are her scissors and a small knife, and just below her hands are some pins.
Mrs. Gundelius’s rather odd-looking scissors with open handles show up in other contemporary pictures. You also see ordinary- looking scissors identical to those we use today, with ring-shaped handles, and also the classic U-shaped “spring shears” in various sizes. Michaela points out that many (though not all) 16th-century scissors seem to have “shoulders”, with blades wider than the shafts, as in the photo below.
KNIVES, AWLS & PRICKERS
Another prominent part of Mrs. Grundelius’s collection of tools is the small knife we see below. Since she also has scissors, I would guess a knife would more likely be used for cutting slits — for instance, buttonholes or decorative “pinks” or slashes. Pictured below are the matching knife and pointed awl or “spike” from the same collection as the scissors photo.
An awl is especially useful for making round holes for eyelets, because it tends to push threads of the cloth aside when making a hole, rather than cutting them. This makes for a stronger eyelet.
Another type of sharp pointy thing used by period needleworkers is a “pricker” for transferring needlework patterns. Many period pattern books have holes pricked along the lines of the patterns, showing they were actually used for needlework, since a common method of transferring patterns to fabric is to “prick and pounce,” first pricking the pattern and then rubbing “pounce” of powdered chalk or charcoal through the holes. Michaela made one herself, using pliers to push the blunt end of a needle into a wooden handle.
NEEDLES & BODKINS
One of those perpetual questions from people just starting out in historical needlework is, “Didn’t they just have bone needles back then?” Indeed, the first needles were probably bone, but by the Middle Ages there was already a thriving industry in making needles of brass and iron. Needles (and pins) became cheaper in the later Middle Ages when the greater availability of wire-drawing made it possible to produce large quantities of thin, uniform wire quickly and easily.
Needles were carried in needlebooks and needle cases to keep them secure and protected. (A pincushion doesn’t work as well for needles: it’s too easy for them to sink down out of sight into the cushion.) The Museum of London books on Textiles and Clothing and The Medieval Household have abundant examples of needles and needlecases, such as these:
Needles come in various types, of course, and there are period examples of many sizes, different eye shapes, and needles for special purposes such as sewing leather. One common type is the bodkin, a flat, blunt strip of metal with one or more eyes, used to thread ribbon or cord through a casing. Many modern bodkins look exactly like the period ones, and they’re still a useful thing to have. Michaela’s bone awl and a flat bodkin can be seen in the photo below, and her needlebook is the one illustrated on the Project Page.
PINS & PINCUSHIONS
Medieval pins were made more or less like needles and of the same materials. But pins need heads. Common pins probably had small spherical or hemispherical heads that were hammered into shape or soldered on. Michaela was able to find some that look like these for her work basket, handily stored in a strip of paper. Pins were also headed with globs of glass or with the end of the wire bent over and wound around the top of the shank. The Museum of London’s Dress Accessories book has a number of examples and some discussion of pin-making.
Pins seem to have first been stored in cases, similar to needle cases. In 1409, for instance, Marie of Sully records in her inventory a silver pincase with religious motifs. But pincushions definitely appear by the 16th century and perhaps earlier.
I haven’t been able to find much information on pincushion shapes and materials. The pincushions you hear the most about are the highly decorative embroidered pincushions attached to Elizabethan sweet bags. These aren’t very practical with all that metal thread! Our guild’s old “Strawberry pincushion” kit (shown in Michaela’s basket) is patterned after the size and shape of these decorative pincushions, but is worked in plain wool on canvas.
Thimbles are relatively boring for our purpose because they don’t seem to have changed much over the centuries. Michaela’s basket has an ordinary plain brass thimble, which looks remarkably like the Museum of London’s medieval examples, although the medieval ones tend to be shorter and to have domed rather than flat tops. Leather thimbles were also used, probably before metal ones came into fashion.
A lump of beeswax is standard equipment for plain sewing, though not as useful for embroidery, since you wouldn’t want to wax silk embroidery thread. It’s also not very practical to carry around in our area’s hot weather, since it melts easily. I’ve known at least one friend’s project come to grief because beeswax melted all over it.
Magnifiers are helpful for those of us over 40 — I, for one, can no longer do most needlework without some sort of magnification. Michaela commissioned the magnifying glass you see in the pictures from a metalsmith at Renaissance Faire, giving him period illustrations to work from, and she’s pleased with the result.
One of Michaela’s more ingenious items is the sort of measuring-string that existed before tape measures — which, at least in England according to Janet Arnold, are a post-1600 invention. Michaela has taken a length of stout linen thread (which doesn’t stretch) and tied knots every “nail” (an old measuring unit of 2 1 /4 inches, 1 /16 of a yard) for a total length of one ell (45 inches). Both ells and nails were common measuring units, especially for cloth.
Finding out how medieval embroiderers stored their thread has been a bit of a challenge. It’s clear that we don’t find modern-type spools in a medieval context — what we think of as “spool shaped.” Thread was sold in skeins and had to be wound into some other form to be practical for use.
One possibility, especially for ordinary sewing thread, is that it was simply wound into small balls, as we see in Mrs. Grundelius’s portrait. These would have to be kept in some sort of container (and away from cats!) to prevent unwinding and tangling.
Another possibility is that thread, especially fragile silks, was wound from skeins onto the flat objects known as thread winders (illustrated below). We know they were used in the centuries after 1600, and they seem perfectly plausible for the Renaissance as well, although I’m not aware of any surviving examples. Thread winders don’t hold a lot of thread and would be better suited for expensive thread bought in small quantities.
Simpler possibilities include winding thread around a plain stick, and there’s an example of one from the Museum of London that has a protruding “stop” carved at one end, the predecessor of the flared ends of modern spools. Thread could also have been wound around a plain flat rectangular piece of card or thin wood, and insofar as I can decipher the details in paintings and engravings, that seems to be what we see most often depicted.
From this discussion, although it’s a very quick overview, you can see that it’s possible to put together a period sewing kit that’s also quite practical to use. A little “creative shopping” may be required, but it doesn’t have to be expensive either. I, for one, plan to enjoy mine.
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