George III Valentine sampler pin cushion, dated 1801, M with a heart then an E, the base of the cushion with flowers, 50mm high
The recorded origins of pin cushions date back to the Middle Ages of Europe. In the English language, they became known by many names: “pimpilowes, pimpilos, pimplos, pimploes, pin-pillows, pin-poppets,
During the 18th century, weighted pincushions became popular among seamstresses. In England, seam clamps attached to a table and designed for holding hems for sewing became common, and were often in the shape of a bird (the tail would be pinched to open and close the “beak” to hold the fabric); attached to the bird was a velvet pin cushion.
Pin cushions, or pincushions, only became a necessity once sewing implements were mass produced during the middle of the 19th century.
The crudely made pins and needles used before the Industrial Revolution were costly and typically stored in small boxes and cases. it wasn’t until pins were widely affordable that cushions were commonly sold as trinkets or commemorative gifts.
Like other decorative elements of the Victorian dressing room, pin cushions gradually moved out of the boudoir and into the larger household. Designed in fanciful shapes adorned with embroidery and glass beading, these pin cushions were crafted from every material imaginable, including precious metals, bone, celluloid, wood, ivory, porcelain, fabric, and paper.
Novelty cushions resembling miniature boots and shoes were very popular, as were those modeled after various animals with velvet pinning-fabric mounted on their backs or in their mouths.
More uncommon designs ranged from miniature furniture, like pianos and bassinets, to vegetables, like silk corncobs studded with kernels made from pearl-headed pins.
Porcelain pincushion dolls, or half-dolls, were fashionable in late 19th-century Europe, and remain collectable today. Millions were made and sold during the 19th century, but due to their fragility, examples in excellent condition remain scarce. The form resembles a typical china figurine of a beautiful woman, but the porcelain doll ends at the waist, where holes are included in the design to allow the half-doll to be stitched to a pincushion. The pincushion half of the doll may be made of satin fabric and lace trimmings to resemble a skirt.
Cushions were also frequently mounted onto other sewing tools, like clamps, boxes, and baskets.
Though generally containing available materials like cotton, wool, horsehair, or sawdust, some pin cushions were filled with emery to help keep needle points sharp and prevent rusting.
The bright red tomato shape, one of the most common modern pin cushion designs, evolved from a specific Victorian-era tradition. By the end of the 19th century, widespread superstition called for placing a tomato on your mantle to ward off evil spirits. Since tomatoes were not available year round, fabric or paper replicas with detailed vines and leaves were created to do the trick instead, and soon served a second function for pin and needle storage.
The Pin stuck or Pin Cube had pins in the cushion as part of the design or message. Many of them were made to commemorate an event, much like our wedding and birth samplers today.
Even pincushions were made in memory of someone and there were special pins with black heads.
Disc pincushions also could be hung from a belt. The pincushion was actually sandwiched between two hard outer pieces. They could be wooden so a design could be painted on them. They might also be a shell or precious metal with an engraved design.
Today the pincushion is still a trusty tool that can be found in the modern sewing box. It is a needleworker’s best friend and an essential aid with a rich history.
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