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    

Rare Antique Victorian Tunbridge Ware Sewing / Vanity / Writing / Work BoxAntique Vintage Victorian Art Nouveau Gold Enamel Needle Case Box Holder SewingAntique Carved Coquilla Nut Sewing Egg Thimble Case Box Trinket Vintage Singer Featherweight 221k White Greenish With Box And Key Excellent1940's Peggy Mannequin Sewing Doll-mccall Patterns, Box, Brochures Etc-rare FindAntique Walnut Box Tunbridge Inlay Lock And Key C1880Antique Button Engraved Snake Curled Up In A Pierced Basket Large 36.5mmAntique Walnut Box Tunbridge Bands Lock And Key C1870Antique Walnut Inlaid Sewing Box Antique Vintage Sewing Kit - Horn & Mother Of Pearl Handles, Leather Covered BoxStylish Art Nouveau English Ornate Impressed 'pins' Metal Sewing Pin Box C1908Scarce 18-19th Century Spanish Colonial Sewing BoxVintage Realistic 7 Gods Of Good Fortune Head Buttons-japan-original Box Paper.Antique Wood Carved Coquilla Nut Sewing Egg Thimble Thread Case Holder 3"Antique Leather Sewing Box Kit With Tools Vintage Antique Solid Mahogany Box Silk Lined Lock And Key 1890Vintage Sewing Tin Box Complete With Compartments For Needles Shuttle ButtonsAntique Wood Carved Coquilla Nut Sewing Egg Thimble Thread Case Holder 2 3/4"Charming Antique Victorian Sewing Box Tin With Mother Of Pearl Buttons Reels EtcBeautiful Hand-made Cut Glass Thimble * England * Original Box! Never Displayed!Vintage Silver Plated Cat & Basket Pin Cushion No Reserve Box Lot Of Antique Vtg Buttons From Estate Collection- Arts & Crafts- CollectorReally Old Wood Box Old Cotton Reel BoxHand Carved Crab Sewing Trinket BoxLarge Sewing Basket/box Full Of Vintage Notions Buttons Thread Trim L@@k!Vintage Sewing Notions Buttons Pin Cushion Antique Decor Wood Shadow Box Hand Carved Crab Sewing Trinket BoxVintage Wooden Accordian Style Sewing Or Jewelry Storage Box ChestRare Vtg German Travel Sewing Kit In Box W/ Thimble Silver AiredalesVintage Woven Reed Sewing Or Mending Basket With AccessoriesVintage Antique Asian Sewing BasketLarge Sewing / Craft Basket Woven With Tapestry Top Inside Suprise LookVintage Wilson Wil-hold Ivory/creme Basket Weave Sewing Storage Box - W/tray~eucMarion Weeber Type Vintage Realistic Fruit Basket Extruded Celluloid Button A62Lge Antique Walnut Box Mother Of Pearl Lock & Key 1870Cath Kidston Cottage Chic Paisley Blue Ribbon Box New Vintage Rattan Sewing Basket.Vintage Singer Sewing Wood Box Accordian Style 8" X 5" X 5" About Multi-compartmVintage Fold Out Sewing Box Notions Trinket Jewelry Collectibles WoodenVintage - Box Of Mixed Window Shade Pulls - Tassels - Rings - Buttons - VintageVintage Sewing Kit. 1920s 1930s. Hotel Leon. Advertising. Hutchinson KansasVintage Sewing Box Brass Hardward Plus Sewing Notions Trim Buttons All VintageReally Old Maunchline Ware Wood Box Old BoxVintage Blue Thimble With Swan Gimbels Thimbles In Box Porcelain2 J&p Coats Vintage Thread Boxes Advertising Display 4 SpoolsVintage Small Wood Sewing Box Poland Expanding Swivels To Open Antique Small Black Sewing Box With Floral & Forget Me Not Saying Vintage Wicker Sewing Basket Wtih Contents Estate Sale Vintage Mid Century Knitting Tote Folding Wood Stand Crochet Bag BasketFlorenza Pincushion And Pin Box 2 Pc. White With Rhinestones 4 1/2" Vtg 1930's Laura Wheeler Kittens Flowers Basket Embroidery Transfer Pattern Heirloom Editions Porcelain Thimble W/lid And BoxSet Of 4 White Czech Glass Buttons With Silver Luster And 4-way Brass Box ShankVintage Mini Sewing Box WoodRealistic Fruit Basket Large Jasperware Button By Shirley ShawFold-out Expandable Vintage Handmade Accordion Wooden Sewing Box Husqvarna Viking 412 2804-45 Walking Foot Dual Feeder In Original Box #1plusBrooks Sewing Cottons Wood Box 6 Spool VintageVintag Sewing Knitting Basket Bag Crochet Caddy Folding Autumn Floral Fabric Vintage Pin /sewing Box Asian Japanese Chinese 8 Men With Ponytails