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    

Fine Rare Antique Victorian 1873 Solid Sterling Silver Chatelaine Sewing Pin BoxAntique Sewing Kit In Leather Case - Silver Thimble Scissors Needle Case FrenchAntique Walnut Box Tunbridge Bands Lock And Key C1880Fine Antique C.1830 English Bone & Faux Tortoiseshell Sewing Needle Case BoxAntique Sabbathday Lake Shaker Oval Wooden Sewing Box Silk Lined SignedAntique Fitted Sewing Box Mother Of Pearl Lock Key 1870Antique Mahogany Box Domed Lid Lock And Key C1890Rare Estate Find Us Mail Box Pewter Thimble Signed Nicholas Gish Bird Nest NiceAntique Domed Box Abalone Mother Of Pearl Lock Key 1880Vintage Unusual & Unique Bird's Eye Maple Top Wood Sewing Thread Box Clark's OntAntique Wood Sewing Caddy W/ Shelves Thread Holders & Pin Cushion 9.5" TallFine C.1830 Continental Lace-carved Reticulated Bone Jewellery Trinket Case BoxBig Lot Box Of Vintage Sewing PatternsAntique Rosewood Box Mother Of Pearl Lock And Key 1870Antique Burr Walnut Box Banded Edge Lock And Key 188010 + Lbs Vintage Buttons All Kinds--medium Flat Rate Box Packed FullRetro Peter Max Style Decorated Belding Corticelli Sewing BasketVintage Fold Out Accordian Wood Hinge 3 Tier Sewing Box Dovetail CabinetVintage Wood Sewing Box Basket Craft Knitting Embroidery Accessories FoldingVtg Lrg Made Exclusivly For Singer Wicker Sewing Basket W Tray & Satin Lining Vintage Celluloid Cloth Tape Measure Basket Of Flowers W/ Ladybug PullSewing Basket Dritz Woven Oval Lavender & Tray 9 1/2x7" Filled With Old Notions1set Threader Needle Tape Measure Scissor Storage Box Sewing KitsVtg Simplicity Pattern Fashiondol Mannequin + Patterns BoxVintage Cutco Buttonhole Scissors Unused In The BoxOld Oak Folding Sewing Box & Bunch Of Machine Parts, Dove Tail 4 Sections, 1889Charming Vintage Pink Princess Decoupaged Round Wicker Sewing Box Basket1920's Small Chinese Wicker Sewing Basket~glass Ring~tassels~glass Beads~coinsAntique Sweet Grass Lidded Sewing Basket Woven W/buttons,advertising Needle CaseDritz Sewing Basket Box Nwt Floral St. Jane CollectionVintage Pink Wil-hold Wilsons Sewing Box With TrayAustin, Tx Estate! Gorgeous Tole Painted Vintage Sewing Box - Made In Brazil!Antique Victorian Silvered Copper Embossed French Sewing Box W/key, Blank ShieldVintage Singer Edge Stitcher Foot In Box #36865Vintage Square Princess Wicker Pink Sewing Box Basket Filled With Sewing NotionsAntique Oak Embossed Wheeler Wilson Sewing Box - Shows Some WearVintage Singer Attachment Tucker #160692 With Box For Class 301 Family MachinesVintage Hommer Blue Marble Plastic Yarn Or String Box Filigree Design Top & CordVtg Wicker Lap Sewing Basket Chinese Beads,coins Yellow Ring 9 3/4"100pc Sewing Kit Thread Threader Needle Tape Storage Box Measure Scissor ThimbleAntique Mahogany Inlaid & Banded Box Lock And Key 1870Antique Mahogany Box Sloping Edge Lock And Key C1870Sewing Kit Box Set Craft Scissor Needle Thread Tape Threader Measure Thimble NewVintage Green Harvey Square Princess Wicker Sewing BasketUniversal Miracle Sewing Basket Made In Canada. Vintage Fabric ExteriorEnchanting Bumble Bee Thimble - Mint In Box By AvonVtg. Miniature Metal Pyramid Sewing Thimble Trinket Box Hnd Pntd Mummy Inside !!Quilt Pattern Thimble - Jim Shore - New In BoxVintage Metal Folding Knitting Basket Sewing Craft Yarn Classic ToteLot 5 Vintage Sewing Collectibles Tape Measures Needle Cases Singer Needle BoxPretty One Piece Silvered Brass Button; A Basket With Colorful FlowersVintage Sewing Thread Spools & Sewing Box. (50+) Spools3 Large Beautiful Victorian Black Glass Buttons. Brass Box Shanks 27-31mm. Antique Domed Oak Box Brass Centre Lock And Key C1880"cats/kittens In A Basket" Realistic Pewter 1940s Vintage Antique Picture ButtonAntique Germany Hand Painted Porcelain Stud Collar Button Box*german~roses* Vintage Sewing Basket W/lid 12 Spools Embroidery Thread Plus Hoop Antique Singer 1889 Oak Puzzle Box With Original Dark Purple Velvet Cloth.Large 18 X 14 Oak Wood Lined Picnic Basket Sewing Box Hinge Lid All Open StorageVintage 11 Wooden Spools Sewing Thread & Box Coats & Clark's O.n.t. Boilfast