Fanciful Utility Anniversary – A Look at the Tools

Today I am looking at the most common tools found in a sewing case.  (Most of these tools are available in the Anniversary kits on Etsy)

Whether called  work-boxes, sewing cases or work chests, these beloved boxes  house both essential practicality and heart-felt love.

Lucy took the heavy parcel in her own hands, and began to open the folds of brown paper, and at last she exclaimed, ‘Oh, how nice! how pretty! How glad I am to have a real large work-box of my own! Thank you, dear mamma. Such a beautiful red box, and a lock and key to it! and Lucy proceeded to examine the contents

There were rows of reels of cotton, scissors, thimble, bodkin, a yard measure that would wind and unwind in a pretty ivory case, needle-case, and pin-cushion.” (“Lucy’s Winter Birth-day” by Mrs. Russell Gray from An Irish Story,  Archie Mason ed. Edinburgh, 1869.)


From “The Last Essay of Celia: The Old Work-box” Foreign Quarterly Review, 1833.


Bodkins are found in many materials including wood, bone and metals. These are used to run ribbons or cords through channels of garments. They resemble a blunt needle with a large eye or eyes in the end. The end must be dull, not sharp, to protect the fabric and not snag.

You will require several bodkins of different sizes. The smoother they are, the better they run through the cases. Always get them with a knob at the end. Steel bodkins are more serviceable than those of gold or silver; but in buying steel ones, take care that they are not pewter; this you may ascertain by trying if they will bend. (Miss Leslie’s Lady’s House-book; A Manual of Domestic Economy, Eliza Leslie. Philadelphia, 1850.)

Stiletto (and Awl)

Stilettos are used pierce holes in fabric for eyelets and needlework such as white work. Stilettos can be bone or of several metals.  Early century dictionaries define stilettos as a small, unedged dagger with a sharp point.

The Boy's Book of Trades

The Boy’s Book of Trades

Awls seem to be more task oriented also for piercing holes in textiles as well as leather, some with wooden handles.


Most of us know what scissors are. I find I prefer to have a small and medium size pair of scissors at events and an assortment of large scissors at home.

You will find it necessary to have three pair of scissors; a large pair for cutting out things that are thick and heavy; a smaller pair for common use, and a very small pair for work that is nice and delicate. They should all be sharp-pointed. When your scissors begin to grow dull, have them ground at once. The cost will not exceed six cents for each pair, (even if ground at a surgical instrument shop.) and haggling with dull scissors is very uncomfortable work. (Miss Leslie’s Lady’s House-book; A Manual of Domestic Economy, Eliza Leslie. Philadelphia, 1850.)


Thimbles protect your finger(s) while you sew. Different thimbles aid in different ways depending on how you use them. Seamstresses tended to use the full cup thimbles most of us know, while tailors tended to use open end thimbles.

It is well to have always two thimbles, in case one chancing to be mislaid. When you find that a hole is worn in your thimble, give up the use of it; as it will catch the eyes of your needles and snap them off. (Miss Leslie’s Lady’s House-book; A Manual of Domestic Economy, Eliza Leslie. Philadelphia, 1850.)


You will want an assortment of needles in your sewing box suited to your work. I prefer having several sharps, several fine quilting needles that are good for silk, a couple embroidery needles and some strong just in case needles on hand in my box.

“In providing needles, short ones will generally be found most convenient, and their eyes should be rather large. Many of the needles that are put up in sorted quarters of a hundred are so small as to be of now possible use to anyone. Therefore, in buying needles, it is best to select for yourself. Have always some that are very large, for coarse strong purposes. When a needle breaks of bends, put it at once into the fire; for if thrown on the floor or out of the window, it may chance to run into the foot of someone.” (Miss Leslie’s Lady’s House-book; A Manual of Domestic Economy, Eliza Leslie. Philadelphia, 1850.)

The Illustrated Girl's Own Treasury.

The Illustrated Girl’s Own Treasury.


“It is well to get at least a dozen cotton spools at a time, that you may have always at hand the different gradations of coarse to fine. The fine spools of coloured cottons are far better for many purposes than bad sewing silk; but coloured sewing cottons should only be used for things that are never to be washed, as it always fades after being in water. Mourning chintz should on no account be sewed with black cotton as it will run when wet, and stain the seams. …. Keep always brown thread in the house; also hanks of gray, white, and black worsted, for darning winter stockings; and slack twisted cotton, and strong floss silk, for repairing other stockings.” (Miss Leslie’s Lady’s House-book; A Manual of Domestic Economy, Eliza Leslie. Philadelphia, 1850.)


Thread winders

Thread winders are small, flat objects used for carrying smaller amounts of thread. They came/come in mother of pearl, wood, bone, silver, pasteboard, horn and other materials. The most common are circles with notches or plus signs, but they have come in a very wide variety of shapes including fish and animals.


Pincushions came in a very wide variety suited to the user’s needs and preference. I’ll be talking more about pincushions in a few days.

Measures & Flat rule

Two measures you will find most helpful in your sewing box will be a short measuring stick and a tape measure. When I am doing millinery, I have an 8 1/2″ rule. While I am working on smaller sewing, a shorter rule is nice.

Tapes can be simple hand inked tapes or more decorative pieces that roll into wooden or horn holders.


A piece of white wax, for rubbing on a needleful of sewing silk to strengthen it, is a most useful little article;  (Miss Leslie’s Lady’s House-book; A Manual of Domestic Economy, Eliza Leslie. Philadelphia, 1850.)

Other tools:

Pencil & Small Notebook – A simple pencil for marking or taking notes is always helpful.

The Boy's Book of Trades

The Boy’s Book of Trades

Chalk “a small box of prepared chalk, to dip the fingers in when the weather is warm and the hands damp” (Miss Leslie’s Lady’s House-book.)

Emory bag – “Those that are made for sale have generally so little emery in them, that they are soon found to be useless. It is best to make your own emery-bags; buying the emery yourself at a druggist’s, or at an hardware store.” (Miss Leslie’s Lady’s House-book.)

Sewing Brick – “We highly recommend a brick pincushion, as an important article of convenience when sewing long seams, running breadths, or hemming ruffles. It is too heavy to overset, and far superior to a screw pincushion.” (Miss Leslie’s Lady’s House-book.)

Weights – Also a weighted pincushion. “A smaller pincushion [than the above sewing brick] may be made in a similar manner, substituting a square block of wood.”(Miss Leslie’s Lady’s House-book.)

Find all the quotes from Miss Leslie above and more in this printable pdf booklet.

For further information:

The Lady’s Dictionary of Needlework, 1856

Treasures in Needlework, 1855

The Ladies’ Complete Guide…., 1854

The Hand-book of Needlework, 1842

A Period Workboxby Christian de Holacombe and Michaela de Neuville

What is in Your Sewing Box?

Looking for your own copy of Fanciful Utility? 

Click HERE to go ESC Publishing.

Remember to check out the special Anniversary kits on Etsy

Published in: on August 12, 2015 at 9:00 am  Comments (1)  

One CommentLeave a comment

  1. This is a wonderful article. Thanks for posting it. I enjoyed this so much and will read more in Miss Leslie’s book. Thanks for the link to Miss Leslie’s Lady’s House-book.

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