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    

Antique Sewing Box & Tools- Job Lot Needle Case Bobbin Twine Vintage Estate SaleAntique 19th Century Georgian Victorian Chinese Carved Bone Part Sewing Box Set Antique J & P Coats Walnut Spool & Thread Mercantile Store Countertop Display1940s Simplicity Vintage Sewing Mannequin Composition Latexture Doll W BoxAntique 19thc Victorian Cranberry Glass Ormolu Metal Basket Thimble Holder 1890sAntique 19thc Art Nouveau Egyptian Revival Embossed Leather Sewing Ribbon BasketSuperb Rare Fitted Sewing Box Inlaid With Queen Victoria And Albert On HorsesAntique Flame Mahogany Box Brass Centre Lock & Key 1870Vintage Original Victorian 'hat Box' W. Avery & Sons Figural Brass Needle Case Antique Walnut Box Mother Of Pearl Lock And Key 1880Vintage Art Nouveau Tin Metal Sewing Pins Needle Case Box Early 1900'sMiniature Antique 19th Century Victorian Hazel Nut Basket Pin Cushion C1890'sSabbathday Lake Maine Shaker Sewing CarrierVintage Amoskeag Manufacturing Co. Wooden Thread Box Manchester NhVintage Flat Box Lot Of Old Vintage Sewing Buttons EtcVery Nice Wooden Accordion Style Sewing Box Romania Dove-tailedOld French Metal Button Basket With 2 Geese & 2 Rabbits 1 & 1/16"Antique Rosewood And Inlaid Maple Box Lock And Key 1870 Elna Supermatic Light Grey Accessory Box, Vintage Ads, 10 Cams For Elna 722010Estate Sale Lot Vintage Sewing Box Contents NotionsVintage Singer Zigzag Attachment #160620 With Box And InstructionsJapan Girl With Basket Luster Pin Cushion Mij NrVintage Accordian Sewing Box (294).99 Auction Antique Vintage New Buttons Md. Flat Rate Box Full Mix Kinds ColorsVintage Antique Sewing Box And Crochet Pin Cushion Hand Made Faux GrainingAntique Victorian Sea Shell Sewing Box W/ Pin Cushion Top & Mirror SeashellMax Klein Mid-century Modern Vintage Pink Plastic Sewing Box Notions Chest Vintage Holt Howard Sewing Kitty Box Hh Plaid Pin Holder/trinket/display FiguralWicker Dressmaker Sewing Basket - PhilippinesVintage Wicker Thimble Basket With ThimbleVintage Curved Blond Wood Accordion Sewing Box Basket Mcm Western Germany Vintage 3 Legged Wooden Sewing Yarn Basket Box With PincushionSmall Antique Pewter Metal Trinket Box Pin CushionNazwa Art Polish Hand Carved Expanding Wooden Sewing Box Basket Jozef SzczerbaVintage Folding Wood Frame Sewing Knitting Yarn Bag Tote Caddy Stand BasketVintage Singer Automatic Zigzagger In BoxHandmade Southwest Style Decorative Sewing Coil BasketWooden 100 Openings Miniature Thimble Display Case Wall Box W/ Plexiglas CoverSexy Vintage Retro Pill Box Hat #9992 Sewing Fabric Pattern Sally Victor Vogue Vintage Buttons Small Flat Rate Box Full Of Mostly PlasticSm Antique Walnut Box Tunbridge Centre Lock & Key 1880Vintage 1980 Hallmark Cards Uk Sterling Silver Rose Thimble Red BoxVintage Wooden Sewing Box With Mirror And Strawberry Pin CushionVintage Sky Blue Harvey Sewing Basket Full Of Thread Flower Decal Lid Carry CordHarvey Vintage Sewing BoxTin Sewing Box Sewing Full & Old Blue Plastic Darner Made In UsaVintage Wooden Framed Folding Knitting Crochet Yarn Sewing Tote Basket HolderVintage Sewing Ribbon Threaders Work Box Tools Tyton Shuttle Mystery Metal 1921Vtg Wooden Folding Sewing Stand Knitting Crochet Yarn Bag Tote Basket Caddy1980's (6) Country Store Advertising Thimbles & 1 Wood Shelf With BoxVintage-belding Corticelli Silk Twist Thread Button & Buttonhole-5 Spools In BoxPorcelain Thimbles New In Box Two SetsVintage Mid Century Solid Wood Accordion Sewing Notions Craft Knitting BoxAntique Sewing/knitting Wooden Box 24" Hight X 18" Width X 27" LengthAntique Singer Wood Puzzle Box W/ Sewing Attachements ~ Singer 1800's Sewing Vintage Singer Wooden Sewing Box With Thread And Notions Vintage Sewing Basket Kit Box With Thread Pincushion Pins Basket Weave Side Huge-lot-junk-drawer-womans-plastic Thimbles Wood Needle Box Shoe Clips PinsVintage Sewing Basket Handle Astrology Lid Full Of Goodies Buttons Scissors More Colorful Realistic/figural "flower Basket & Flowers" Button