What’s Inside – The Pin Cushion Experiment

***Note- This post will be updated as I test more fillings from the t0-do list.***

Squishing filling into a pin cushion one day, I started to wonder what a fun game it would be to stuff a bunch of pin cushions with different fillings and see if people could guess which was which.

As weird thoughts go, this one kept rolling round in my head… Over the years, then and now, what all have people tried to stuff their pin cushions with? How did each one act? What worked? What didn’t? What really didn’t? …. This rolling became a “must try this.” I had a bunch of pin cushion circles left from the workshops didn’t? Yep….

Let’s first look at the history:

What did “they” fill their cushions with? I have seen a few materials inside pin cushions and sewing cases.  There are others I not experienced in person but know to have been used. These include:

  • bran
  • raw wool
  • scraps of wool threads such as those pulled from fabrics
  • straw or flax
  • sawdust and wood shavings
  • emery

For the ‘experiment’, I used both materials that would have been used in the 19th century and modern use ones. I thought it would be an interesting comparison. Factors I looked at included easy of stick-ability, weight, compression and effects on pins over time. Each of the cushions are made with quilt weight cotton and crochet cotton. The crochet cotton helps determine how the filling compacts.

What I stuffed with:

wpid-2015-11-16-20.39.54-1.jpg.jpegWool batting/roving – This seems to provide the softest/squishiest of the wool fillings. It is firmer than the poly-fil. While it compacts, it does so evenly with a moderate amount of pull on the string.

The cushion is fairly light weight. Pins stick easily with a slight depression before going through the fabric. As wool roving and batting are easily available, this is an inexpensive and accessible, period correct option.

wpid-2015-11-17-18.16.54-1.jpg.jpegRaw, cleaned wool – This seems to provide the densest, least squishy of the wool fillings. The raw wool I used was fairly tightly wound to itself in clumps. I think this made stuffing the cushion easier. I can feel some of those twists inside. It compacts consistently with a little more pull on the string than the roving did. Some areas do feel less dense than others. The pins stick easily with a slight depression before breaking through the fabric.

The natural lanolin in the wool is said to be good for the needles. Raw wool may be easily available for some but not others. If available, this is an inexpensive period correct option.

wpid-2015-11-17-18.16.41-1.jpg.jpegWool scraps – The scraps for this cushion were threads pulled from about 8-9 square inches of heavy weight wool that had been washed and lightly felted. This cushion compacts consistently and evenly. It is not as dense as the raw wool. The pins stick easily with a slight depression before breaking through the fabric.

If someone regularly works with wool, this is a free stuffing option as scraps would abound. It does take some time to pull the threads apart.

wpid-2015-11-16-20.40.29-1.jpg.jpegPoly-fill – This is the softest and lightest of the cushions I have here. It is also the squishiest of the bunch. I found this cushion to compact unevenly and inconsistently. You can see this in the segments in the photo that are  misshapen. (I did make a second cushion to recheck my process.) This cushion takes compression before the pin will break through the fabric.

This is an inexpensive option for filling a modern pincushion. I would like to note, this fill made my eyes burn.

wpid-2015-11-16-20.38.48-1.jpg.jpegWalnut hulls with lavender – This cushion is filled with a commercial product for making pin cushions. It is ground hulls with lavender inside. The hulls are about the size of coarse salt on soft pretzels, maybe a little bigger. This filling was easy to fill with, though a bit messy (each hull could be picked up by hand.) The cushion is one of the heavier of this batch. It will not roll or slide. This would be a good option for a weight. There compression is even and consistent. Pins go right in with a rather pleasing ‘crunch’ feel.

The bag I have cost about $5. I expect it will make a half dozen pin cushions this size. I need to investigate the authenticity of this option.

wpid-2015-11-16-20.39.16-1.jpg.jpegSawdust – The sawdust I used was somewhere between dust and shavings, some was little, soft curls of wood. This made a weighty cushion that is quite as heavy as the walnut hulls. Pins go into this cushion nicely without much depression. The cushion compressed consistently but with some uneven areas.

If you have a wood shop, this is a free option for filling that is period correct. Be sure to pick clean, dry shavings. I do not know if any particular woods would be better or worse, or if any would turn corrosive over time.

Those I still need to do:

Sand – Need to get some

Emery – It is here, somewhere….

Cotton battingYawn

Bran – Need to get some

Rice – Need to just make it

Human Hair – Not sure I’m going to do this or not. 

Those I did not try:

Silica beads – Though several websites say silica makes a nice pin cushion, I am somewhere between skeptical and hesitant. I think of silica in connection with moisture control, that the packets attract moisture. I really don’t want a pin cushion that attracts moisture. All I can picture is the damp-rid bins we use in storage – ewy-goowy messes.

Graphite – How I laughed at this one. I do not want any additional ground or powdered graphite in my house. Husband tracks enough home on a daily basis. *In all seriousness, I simply can not picture a graphite filled cushion going will when working with white silk.

Others also mentioned on various sites and discussion boards…. pencil shavings, rock salt, small pet bedding, vase filler , foam wrapped in batting,

What do we like in our pincushions?

Liz Clark “The one in my little FanU sewing box is filled with wool roving, and it’s my favorite. I don’t sew with pins on the machine, but I do sometimes use a few for handsewing and the wool keeps them nicely!”

Gail Kellogg Hope“I have sevearl. My least favorite is the modern tomato. Not enough weight & I chase it across the floor a lot. My Fat Lady, who is larger, weighted and filled with polyfill. My great-grandmother’s woven, which is filled with sawdust fo some kind…. I like the weight. Weighted is important to me. That way I’m not knocking it across the room when all I want to do is put a pin in it. It shouldn’t take two hands to put it in.”

Eileen Hook” I have 1. a sand filled pin cushion (one of those pin cushions with a bag attached for little bits of thread), 2. a poly filled one, and 3. a wool raveling filled one. The sand filled one is good because it’s solid and heavy enough that it doesn’t slid across the table. Poly fill is light and easy to find in qntitty, but it is pretty light and the cushions aren’t as ‘solid.’ The wool ravelings are period appropriate and I used them for my period pin cushions. I can stuff quite a lot of wool into a pin cushion!! It feels more substantial than the poly fill.”

Carolann Schmitt – “I use a magnet pin cushion on my sewing machine, ironing board and cutting table. I use a fabric pin cushion stuffed with wool batting when I’m hand-sewing. The wool batting helps prohibit rust and moisture building up on the pins. And I always have an emery bag at hand to remove the protein buildup on pins and needles.”

Others Talking about Stuffing:

Published in: on January 6, 2016 at 7:00 am  Comments (11)  

11 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Very interesting comparisons! I made a pincushion that was a muslin-covered brick with a muslin-covered bag filled with bran. The whole thing was covered with silk. I started to notice tiny holes in the silk that I slowly realized were from the inside out! The bran had some kind of tiny insect that was eating its way out of the pincushion!! Fortunately, it did
    not seem to have a taste for anything else in my sewing room, but it was a startling realization. I liked the texture of the bran a lot, and it was the suggested period filling for this type of cushion, but maybe the bran needs to be treated somehow before putting it in to kill the buggies.

  2. Ack!!!!
    If I do a bran filled one, I’ll be sure to seal it in a ziplock bag and freeze it.

  3. What is wool roving? I have wool guilt batting I shred, as I have no idea where I’d get raw wool. Also, when doing an emory bag, what do you house the emory is so it doesn’t sneak out?

  4. Roving is basically the unspun wool. It is sold naturally as well as dyed. The latter is for felting artists. Many wool suppliers offer it. I’m lucky enough to have a woolery in town and friends with sheep.
    For the emory, I’ve used a cotton lining and no lining.

  5. Love this comparison!

    I also have a bran-filled brick pincushion that I made following instructions I found in various publications from 1831, 1835 and 1850. It is my favorite pincushion and I use it similarly to a sewing bird as well as for just sticking pins in. Mine is constructed with a heavy linen bag (for some I have used cotton canvas for the bag and brick base cover rather than heavy linen) which is filled with bran and attached to the linen covered brick. The whole thing was then covered with a heavy striped cotton cloth. I made mine back in 2009 and taught a workshop on it in for MAALHFAM in 2011. I have made several other small pincushions with the bran as well and like the firmness and weight,

    I have never had a problem with the bran other than it is a little messy to work with and the instructions for the brick pincushion wisely say to put a tray under the area so contain the mess. When I buy the bran, I bring it home and immediately put it into the freezer until I am ready to use it. Just like birdseed, organic flours and meals, etc., freezing the stuff a minimum of 48 hours will kill any buggies in them. I generally leave it about 3 weeks just to be sure the freezing has gone through the density of the bran since I buy it in big bags from the bulk section when I need it. I also store any leftover bran for pincushions in the freezer, but probably any airtight container would be fine as long as it has first been frozen.

    I do like the raw wool and roving pincushions too. They are much easier to work with (read: less messy!) for small pincushions. I did not care for the very light weight and easy upset-ability (is that a word???) of the polyfil cushion someone made a few years ago for the quilters to use at work and find it interesting that they have that one set off to the side and are using a bran-filled cushion I brought instead.

  6. Thank you for the excellent comment Deanna.
    There are directions for smallish sewing weights that remind me of your sewing brick. I need to find those for you.

  7. I love this. I’ve used the crushed walnut hulls. I use a small funnel to get it into the fabric. I really need to try making the pumpkin style pincushion. I really don’t need anymore but I love making and collecting them.

  8. If you find you are having insect problems with bran as a stuffing, put the bran in the freezer for a couple of days before use, bringing it back to room temperature, of course. That will kill off anything living in it. I have a bran stuffed pincushion on top of my sewing brick and thoroughly enjoy the way it holds the pins. I recently recovered a pincushion atop a box and filled that with raw, cleaned wool. My daughter’s pincushion is filled with sawdust. We really like the way the pins sink into all three – the modern poly fills are dreadful by comparison.

  9. I have a pin cushion filled with sand that I made when I was very young…it’s my favorite because it has weight and will stay put. I have made a sewing brick with bran filled bag on top also and it’s wonderful to use while sewing. Thank you for the comparisons, Anna! I may try making one with wool.

  10. Would microwaving the bran be effective in killing the buggies, too?

  11. Sand – Works very, very well. I usually mix with a bit of dried cedar frond and wood shavings.
    Emery – …also garnet “sand” work extremely well, heavy, but they are expensive, so I use them only in small cushions for needle cleaning.
    Cotton batting – Don’t bother. packs unevenly and “melts” into itself.
    Bran – Bugs!!! No!!! I even did one with cedar mixed with the bran and hit the cushion with rosemary oil. I put it up on a shelf where I would see it daily, but within a month it had little wormies….baby codling moths!!!
    Rice – Don’t bother. There are *far* better options. This has a tendency to twist and slip and can also attract bugs.
    Human Hair – Don’t use human hair. I have a cushion of this that my grandmother made and cussed at until the year she died. The acid in human skin oils caused her needles and pins to rust badly.


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