Before mass-produced clothing became affordable, sewing was a way of life for people around the globe. Most often, women were charged with seamstressing duties, and at a young age, girls were required to master complicated sewing skills. As a result, containers such as boxes and baskets designed to hold sewing tools were widespread and diverse.
The earliest sewing containers were simple bags made of fabric or leather. However, by the 18th century in Europe, metalworkers, jewelers, and other craftspeople were tasked with making fine sewing tools for aristocrats and ladies of the court. This led to the production of handsome boxes to hold these tools. Artisans used rare woods, leather, ivory, or precious metals inlaid with gems and mother of pearl on the outsides of their boxes, while the interiors were lined with rich silk or velvet. Larger boxes had two or even three levels or sections.
In the 19th century, industrialization and the rise of the middle class created a market for less expensive and more practical sewing boxes that were both attractive and durable, if not waterproof. Tools and notions made out of steel like needles, pins, scissors, bodkins, buttons, hooks, and eyes were wrapped tight to prevent them from rusting. Delicate, colored threads were protected from light and air with brown paper, while sewing silks were shielded from the elements by soft, washed leather.
A typical Victorian sewing box would be just big enough to keep all of a woman’s sewing tools, as well as a little bit of her handiwork. Inside, you’d find a needle book with a large range of sizes, along with an assortment of thread made of cotton, linen, and silk, plus buttons formed from shells, acorns, wood, and metal. Sewing implements included different types of shears and scissors, a pin cushion and needle emery, a jar of beeswax, and a folding measure or measuring tape. Some boxes even housed tools to make lace or square cords.
The interior of woman’s sewing box was considered an intimate space, much the way the inside of a purse is now. Many of them were made to be locked, and a lady might keep some sort of love token inside it, like a romantic letter, a book of poetry, or an image of her beloved.
In France, small sewing boxes known as étui in France and "lady’s companions" in England and Germany were wildly popular. These portable containers usually held the most basic tools required for sewing on a day trip or for a sewing circle: scissors, needle care, bodkin, and thimble. Larger lady’s companions might hold a small mirror, a tiny perfume bottle, a little New Testament, a lady’s knife, tweezers, or a button hook. The containers were sometimes shaped like books with “Lady’s Companion” on the spine, while others resembled fold-up leather pocketbooks. Other whimsical sewing boxes were shaped like eggs, hearts, sceptres, or even flasks.
When the first sewing machine was introduced in 1860, women found their thread to be too stiff to run through the newfangled contraption. In response, George Clark introduced a six-cord, soft cotton thread for these machines in 1864, and branded it as Clark’s O.N.T. (for “Our New Thread’). In the late 1800s, the Clark Thread Company issued many sewing kits and boxes advertising this brand...
Small, lidded baskets—woven from cane, grass, rushes, willow, honeysuckle, or bamboo—also made suitable sewing containers. In 1800s China, a bride would be presented small gifts in ornate baskets during her wedding. These baskets were exported by the thousands to the United States starting around 1880, and were popular as sewing baskets until around 1930.
Primarily produced in the Guangdong province near Canton, Chinese baskets were adorned with colorful glass bangles and beads, coins, and silk tassels. Such sewing baskets would also be decorated with images such as dragons and flowers made of gesso or barbola. Smaller baskets (10 inches in diameter) would be used to hold spools of thread, needles, scissors, and measuring tape, whereas the larger baskets (12-14 inches) could also contain skeins of ribbon.
In the early 20th century, baskets were the most used sewing containers in the United States. Often they would be lined, with spaces for a pin cushion, scissors sheath, and thimble holder sewn into the lining. Starting around 1930, wicker bucket totes, like those made by Princess and Harvey, became beloved sewing box for countless numbers of women. These usually have cord handles and decal images of flowers, poodles, and sewing tools on their wooden lids.