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 Old Wood BoxVintage ~ C1940 ~ "j. & P. Coats" "‘one Mile Six Cord" In Original Box - UnusedAntique Georgian Straw Work Sewing Box Sailing Ships Town Design Fitted C1840Antique Lot Unusual Carved Cow Bone Pin Cushion & Bakelite Sewing Basket BoxAntique Rosewood Box Mother Of Pearl Lock And Key 1870Antique Rosewood Box Sloping Lid Bun Feet Lock Key 1870Box Lot 300 + Antique Mother Of Pearl Shell Buttons Antique Rosewood Box Mother Of Pearl Lock And Key C1860Antique Edwardian Green Jade Waistcoat Buttons Set Of 6 In Original BoxAntique Walnut Box Tunbridge Bands Lock And Key C1880Lg Antique Rosewood Box Mother Of Pearl Lock & Key 1870Antique German Made Sewing Kit In Decorative Folding Box **excellent**Wonderful Victorian Sewing Stand With Drawer And PincushionSinger Mini Portable Wooden Accordion Fold Out Hinged Sewing Box W/drawer Lot 310 Vintage Wooden Thread Spools Medium Priority Box Full All Sizes & ShapesVintage Wood Accordion Sewing Craft Box Basket Tray Folding Fold Out CantileverVintage Thimble With Leather BoxAntique German Made Sewing Kit In Decorative Case Or Box **very Nice**Antique Wood 3 Drawer Richardson Silk Thread Spool Cabinet Sewing Store DisplayPrimitive Antique Hand Painted Turned Wood Needle Box Toleware Cherries AafaVintage Princess Sewing Box Lot Thread And Other Craft Items Buttons Zippers OldCharming Vintage 1940s Wooden Sewing Box Filled With Period Notions Vintage Singer Accordion Sewing Box Fold Out WoodenVintage Singer Sewing Box Wood Small Accordion Fold Out StyleVintage Sewing Box Lot Needles & Cases Singer Domestic Kenmore Boye 1910 Made In Japan Large Pin Cushion Bird On Luster Flower Basket Nr Vtg Sewing Spool Thread Dispenser Box Drawers Top Pin CushionVintage Rare Cutco Forged Steel Buttonhole Scissors Original Box Free ShippingVintage Antique Sewing Kit Asian Chinoiserie Tin Box Large Lot Buttons, SpoolsVintage "the Speedy Stitcher" Wood Handle Sewing Awl Kit, New, In BoxMade In Japan Girl With Basket Pin Cushion In Hummel Style NrMade In Japan Black Americana €Holland & Sherry Gold Metal Blazer Button Set Lion Rampant Shield Original BoxAntique 1889 Singer Sewing Machine Wooden Box W/ Attachments Nice!Estate Sale Lot Vintage Sewing Box Contents NotionsVtg Large Woven Sewing Notion Basket Floral Fabric Tray Insert Vintage Wilson Wil-hold Sewing Box, 2 Trays, Sunny Yellow Basket Weave,nearmint Bakelite Brass Travel Sewing Kit Cream And GreenVintage Waterbury Buttons In Original Box From New York Telephone Bell SystemVintage Edwardian Decorative Mop Abalone Waistcoat Buttons Set In Orginal BoxVintage Lucite Homer's Kitten Sewing Kit Box With Original Ad 1950's Vintage Blue Wilson Wil-hold Sewing Box 2 Trays Vintage Sewing Basket Wicker Vintage Sewing Box Basket-- Sewing Notions / Large Lot Sewing NotionsVintage Brass Wiss Scissors Crate Or Wooden Box Tag Or Plate - Stay SharpBone China Thimble With Rose & John 6:47 Verse Tiny Bible & Wood Shadow Box.99 Auction Don"t Miss This Huge Lot Crafts Collectables Lg. Flat Rate Box FullAntique American Federal Period Marquetry Wood Sewing Box Dated Anno 1776Vtg Wooden Fold Out Expandable Accordion Craft Sewing Box 3 Tier Flower Art 14"Repousee Box Vintage Japan Footed Hinged Trinket Casket VelveteenVintage Round Wicker Sewing Basket W/lid & Wooden SpoolsVintage Sewing Box Basket Yellow Plastic Wil-hold Wilson Weaved Look UsaVintage Snippy Electric Scissors By Ungar W/ Original Box Boys & GirlsVintage 1950s Woven Sewing Basket - Three Tiers And Contents Star 10 Balls Of Vintage Darning Mending Thread In BoxMy Button Box"sunflowers/crows Buttons(handmadecer)set"(6 Pcs)nioc Mia(tn)l/chanSewing Needle Thread Combinations Kit Thorn Rust Portable Plastic Box StorageAntique Sewing Basket Green Painted Wood And Wicker? Natural Fibers?Vintage Retro Folding Sewing Knitting Yarn Basket Wood Frame Fabric Crochet ElnAntique Woven Wicker Fine Reeds Round Sewing Basket Bakelite Beads Coins Nr