Pin Cushions: ‘See a pin and pick it up, All the day you’ll have good luck'

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See a pin and pick it up

All the day you’ll have good luck

See a pin and let it lie

Bad luck you’ll have all the day’

(A traditional proverb extolling the virtues of thrift in everyday life)

Pins and needles have been in use for as long as people have needed to make, or secure, their clothing. The earliest sewing needles were made of bone or wood, later metal.  Some fine examples of these can been seen today in the archaeology gallery at the Ulster Museum.

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Image: Bronze stick pins, Ireland, 10th to 12th century.

Metal sewing needles, in more common use by the 1600s, required skill and time to make.  Those imported from Europe were fine quality but expensive, cheaper but coarser options were available from local forge workers and black smiths.  The phrase ‘pin money’ comes from the practice in years past, of a husband giving his wife a small allowance for the specific purpose of purchasing needles and pins.

By the mid-nineteenth century the adoption of The Factory System and the development of mechanised processes for needle and pin manufacture led to a massive expansion in the industry.  At the end of the nineteenth century the factories of Redditch, in Worcestershire, were producing 90% of the world’s sewing needles – 3,500 million per year. Today, the last manufacturers of sewing needles in Britain, Needle Industries, at Studley, produce approximately 400 million needles per year.

As needlework pins were mass produced in huge quantities the price became more affordable and soon pincushions, with collection of pins and needles, became the staple content of sewing boxes in many homes.

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Image: A rosewood needlework box, with compartments for small needlework tools and patterns (HOYFM.1.1988).  

This needlework box, from the mid-late nineteenth century, containing two pinwheel pincushions, has the name Eliza Smyth on the lid, in marquetry.   Young women were sometimes presented with a gift of either needlework box, or a set of hair brushes, upon reaching their sixteenth birthday.

Pincushions, whether commercially produced or homemade, offered an efficient, portable, and often highly decorative way of securing pins and needles for daily use in the home or drapery shop workroom. The simplest styles were made of scraps of cloth, stitched together as squares or rounds, the most elaborate featured beadwork, hand embroidery, fine lace or crochet.   ‘Pin stuck’ pincushions – more decorative than functional – were often made by men, soldiers or sailors in particular, as tokens of affection, during the period 1880 -1900.

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Image: A ‘pin stuck’ pincushion with fringed silk edging, 1880 -1890 (HOYFM.617.1986).

The expansion of railway networks, and the related boom in the souvenir industries catering for day-trippers, led to the production of a number of pincushions, thimbles and other small needlework tools featuring references to, and images of, sights visited.

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Image: A pinwheel pincushion depicting the Winter Gardens at Crystal Palace, London around 1860 (HOYFM.532.1971).

Needlework manuals and journals of the late nineteenth century include numerous examples of patterns for pincushions in every conceivable design.  The pincushions, when complete, would be packed tight with a stuffing mix of sawdust, bran and horsehair.  The natural oil in the bran would serve to preserve the metal needles and prevent them from rusting.  Sometimes a pincushion would be filled with coarse sand, to keeps pins and needles sharp.

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Image: Black velvet pincushion, embroidered with glass beads (HOYFM.1287.1992).

The most decorative of pincushions, particularly those of the late nineteenth century, are very collectable nowadays and there are specialist groups dedicated to these and other needlework tools.  The textiles collection at the museum includes around 80 examples of pincushions, dating from the mid-1800s to present day.

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Image: An egg-shaped pincushion trimmed with ribbons, from around 1900 (HOYFM.142.1994).

So…  the next time you see a pin on the floor – pick it up and put in your pincushion!