The textiles collection of The Ulster Folk Museum includes many examples of needlework tools and sewing kits, dating from 1850 to 1950. They offer an insight into the skills and techniques employed in dressmaking and embroidery, and the creative output of the makers.
This Story highlights some of these tools, from a simple wool winder to an elaborate pincushion.
Presentation box of Barbour threads
Before yarns were supplied commercially on spools or bobbins, small holders such as this wooden one were used to store silk, cotton or fine wools. The size of this winder suggests that it was used to hold woollen yarn for embroidery and darning, with the yarn wound around the ‘arms’ or spokes of the holder.
Sometimes these yarn holders were made of bone or ivory and were highly decorative in appearance with intricate carving. This one has the appearance of being both homemade and well –used.
Being small and flat the winder was easy to store in a needlework box or basket, and was very portable.
A heart-shaped pincushion of light green velvet, with a backing of plain cream cotton, edged with a silk fabric fringe. The front has been elaborately decorated with pins, glass beads and figured ribbons in a style known as ‘pin stuck’. The steel pins have been used to anchor the large beads and sequins in such a way as to mark out a pattern and, in this case, the message ‘Best Wishes’.
The three fabric ribbons on this pincushion, including the Christmas greeting in the centre, are silk Stevengraphs. These colourful jacquard - woven images were produced from the 1860s onwards by the ribbon manufacturer Thomas Stevens (1826-1888) of Coventry, for greetings cards, bookmarks, and small pictures.
Pin stuck pincushions were more decorative than practical and were often made by soldiers or sailors as tokens of esteem for their loved ones.
A pincushion of black velvet, decorated with beadwork embroidery and beadwork fringed edging. The raised effect of the leaves has been enhanced with thin cardboard over which the beadwork has been stitched.
Steel needles were prone to rust easily and one way to help prevent this was to fill a pincushion with a bran mixture or crushed walnut shells. The natural oils in the bran helped to keep pins rust-free.
This firmly stuffed pincushion is both decorative and practical, the central area left free of beadwork in order to accept pins and needles.
A pincushion of purple silk velvet with raised beadwork embroidery and a beadwork fringed edging. Backed with plain cotton fabric.
From the 1850s onwards pincushions became increasingly decorative as magazines such as Godey’s Lady’s Magazine and Weldon’s Needlework Journal published patterns for them.
By the late 1800s pincushions were made in every conceivable style and shape, resembling baskets, animals, shoes, and balls. In terms of size, they could range from that of a postage stamp to the dimensions of a house brick.
The more elaborate pincushions were often made as gifts and fancy-work pieces for bazaars and exhibitions of craft work.
Spool holder with spools
With the mass commercial production of sewing threads from the early 1880s onwards came the need for a practical method of storing spools.
Spool holders, capable of holding up to 12 or more reels of thread were manufactured in a variety of designs, all based on the simple principal of removable rods or spokes secured on a upright stand, on which the reels are threaded.
This example, of rosewood, has an attractive turned finial, although in many cases the top incorporated a handy pincushion, usually of velvet.
Sewing machine late 1800s
The Wilcox & Gibbs Sewing Machine Company was founded in 1857 by Americans James E. A. Gibbs and James Wilcox. In the 1870s the company expanded into the European market through offices based in London.
The single thread machines such as the one illustrated here, produced a chain stitch and, being both small and relatively lightweight, were popular with both dressmakers and novice stitchers.
A similar –sized machine was purchased in large quantities by the Board of Education in Ireland for mass distribution throughout the National Schools during the 1880s, with the intention of providing young girls with skills in machine stitching.
The Wilcox & Gibb sewing machine came complete with a wooden carrying case.
In 1911 Wilcox and Gibbs had an agency for their range of machines at 12, Dublin Road, Belfast.
Singer sewing machine c1900
Isaac Merritt Singer obtained his first patent for a sewing machine in 1850, manufacturing in Boston, and, later, New York. He revolutionised both home sewing and factory production of textiles by introducing a hire purchase system of payment, and an innovative range of machines and attachments.
In the 1860s factories for Singer machines were established in Scotland. By 1900 international production had increased dramatically and the ‘Singer’ had become a global brand.
The model 28k (pictured here) was sold with a matching wooden carrying case. These portable table- top machines had an advantage over treadle machines in that they could be used in almost any location, a particular bonus for itinerant dressmakers and tailors.
In 1911 Belfast had 10 agencies for Singer sewing machines, the central one based at 43 Queen St. A model 28k or similar cost £4.4.0s at the time, available through hire purchase at the rate of one shilling per week.
Sewing machine 1920s
The Jones Sewing Machine Company was founded by William Jones and Thomas Chadwick in 1860. In 1869 William Jones opened a factory in his own name, at Guide Bridge, Manchester.
This machine dates from the 1920s and was the firm’s most popular model at the time. A table –top machine, hand operated, and with a wooden carrying case to match. An elaborate gold decal (motif) on the shoulder of the machine states ‘As supplied to Her Majesty Queen Alexandra’.
The Jones Family CS machine used a shuttle (bobbin) mechanism, a feature of all domestic and commercial sewing machines in use today.
In 1911 the Jones Sewing Machine Co. had an agency at 8 Dublin Road Belfast.
Before the modern concept of ‘throw away’ fashion, no needlework box or basket would have been complete without a darning mushroom or darning ‘egg’ over which gloves, socks and other small items of clothing would have been repaired.
The technique of darning required the stitcher to recreate the weave or structure of the original cloth in order to fill in holes and tears. Darning was one of many needlework techniques taught in schools in Ireland from the 1840s onwards.
The handle of the ‘mushroom’ allowed the stitcher to hold the work in place while the dome supported the area to be darned.
Hardwoods were traditionally used to make darning tools as the close grain allowed the stitchers needle to glide smoothly across the surface of the tool.
Embroidery hoops and thread
By the early 1900s tens of thousands of women were employed as outworkers for the white embroidery industry in Ulster, decorating fine linens for the local and export markets.
For those undertaking this needlework the most necessary tool was also the simplest -the embroidery hoop. The cloth to be embroidered was stretched taught between the two hoops with the tension adjusted by the addition or removal of strips of cloth binding the edge.
These two hoops have been made of willow, curved to shape and secured with rivets. The simplicity of construction meant that embroidery hoops were often homemade and given by young men as tokens of affection.
The card holds linen thread from Barbour’s of Lisburn.
Presentation box of Barbour threads
This presentation box of threads was produced by Barbour’s of Lisburn in the early 1900s.
The firm was founded by John Barbour in the late 1700s, at Hilden near Lisburn, County Antrim. By 1898 it had become the largest thread mill in the world. In 1914 Barbour’s employed 2,000 people, producing threads for everything from the finest lace making to sturdy linen thread for rug making.