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.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Sewing Machine Collector

Sewing Machine Collector

Geoff and Norma Dickens' reference site on vintage toy sewing machines from the late 1800s. Browse the images alpha… [read review or visit site]

Sensibility Vintage Images

Sensibility Vintage Images

An extensive collection of photos and ephemera illustrating changing fashion styles from 1795 to 1959. Includes por… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

French Gothic Victorian Antique Sewing Box Needle Case Boite A Couture BagSuperb Rare Antique Tunbridge Ware Work Sewing Stationary Jewellery Wooden BoxAntique Carl Schneider Half Doll On Pin Cushion Powder Box Base With LegsDomed Antique Walnut Box Brass Inlay Lock And Key 1870Lge Domed Antique Box Tunbridge Bands Lock & Key 1870Rare Antique Jacksonian Button, Dog W/ Basket In MouthElna Supermatic Vintage Accessories Disc Cams Bobbins Swiss Manual Lot Tools BoxDomed Antique Walnut Box Tunbridge Star Lock & Key 1880Original Antique Victorian Treen Wooden Cotton Reel Sewing Box With Poem On LidSinger #160620 Zigzag Attachment For Featherweight & Other Sewing Machines W/boxAntique Sewing Box Shaker Sewing Box Thread Box Vintage Sewing Box 71 Vtg Wood Thread Spools Partially Full In 3 Tier Accordian Plastic Sewing BoxVintage Strommen Bruk Hamar Fold Out Sewing Box, Norway Accordion Box, ExcellentVintage Set Of 3 Sewing Scissors Wusthof, Solingen, Germany In Velvet Floral BoxVintage Wiss Wissper-lite Scissors Set Pinking Shears + 3 In Original Box Small Wooden Sewing? Puzzle Box, Rolls Open, Dated. Old / Vintage /antique PartsVintage Tres Claveles Spain Victorian Gold Tone Scissors & Thimble Set W/boxAccordian Style Sewing Box, Wood 3 Level Accordian Style Lever Sewing Box Handle1993 Muffy Vanderbear Sewing Things Tin & Lesson Thimbles Set New In Box RareVintage Wooden Sewing Box With Contents - Primitive Hand MadeAntique Handcrafted Wooden Sewing Box100pc Sewing Kit Thread Threader Needle Tape Storage Box Measure Scissor ThimbleVintage Large Wicker Portable Sewing Box Basket Silk Lined & Contents Thread EtcVintage Sewing Accessories Tin Box W/ Tatting Shuttle Thimble Wood Needle Case +Vintage Wilson Wil-hold Green Plastic Sewing Box With TrayVintage Wilson Wil-hold Gold Yellow Plastic Sewing Box With Tray & Accessories100pc Sewing Kit Thread Threader Needle Tape Storage Box Measure Scissor ThimbleThread Threader Needle Tape Measure Scissor Thimble Storage Box Sewing Kit #4Thread Threader Needle Tape Measure Scissor Thimble Storage Box Bag Sewing KitGermany Hand Painted Porcelain Stud Collar Button Box*bavaria~rosenthal~germanSolid Wood / Wicker Sewing Box Basket With Pillow Top Wood Handles StorageVintage Wooden Handpainted Sewing Box Basket-3 Tier-mexican Folk Art-primitiveAntique 1889 Singer Sewing Machine Attachment Box - Dovetailed, Oak, WoodVintage Children's Baby;s Sewing Kit Beautiful BoxVintage Sewing Box With Lots Of Sewing Items, Thread, Needles, Pin Cushions PlusNos Vintage Box Lot Of 12~coats & Clark's "832 Pinks" Wood Spools Sewing ThreadWooden Sewing Basket - Basket Weave Style With Hinged Lid8 Dreamy Vintage Beige Moonglow Glass Buttons Scalloped Basket Weave Trim 3/4"Vintage Wood And Weave Sewing Basket Approx 9 X 6 X 5Sewing Basket With Contents Thread Needles + Much MoreVintage Black Glass/jet Buttons Over One Pound In Gilbert Clock BoxLot Of Antique Vintage Glass Buttons Peaked Three Sided Brown W/ Tints Box Shank100pc Sewing Kit Thread Threader Needle Tape Storage Box Measure Scissor Thimble100pc Sewing Kit Thread Threader Needle Tape Storage Box Measure Scissor Thimble100pc Sewing Kit Thread Threader Needle Tape Storage Box Measure Scissor Thimble1912*germany Hand Painted Porcelain Stud Collar Button Box~rosenthal~germanAntique Vintage Liddedwicker Woven Small Sewing Basket With Decorated BedsAntique Mauchline Ware Treen Thread Box Holder Washington's House Mount VernonVintage Manikin Butterick Patterns Junior Miss Fashion Design Set In Orig BoxSinger Sewing Box - Basket Vintage Handled Top, Red Silk Inside Made In JapanVintage 1920's Half Doll Pin Cushion Lady With Wicker Box Attachment - German100pc Sewing Kit Thread Threader Needle Tape Storage Box Measure Scissor Thimble100pc Sewing Kit Thread Threader Needle Tape Storage Box Measure Scissor ThimbleFor Domestic Sewing- Machineessential Sewing Tools Kit Needlework Box SetSewing Kit Thread Threader Needle Tape Measure Scissor Thimble Bag Storage Box C100x Sewing Kit Thread Threader Needle Tape Storage Box Measure Scissor Thimble