Fancy Work Friday: Sea Shells and Walnuts

Did you collect shells or stones or nuts as a small child? I vaguely recall being fond of horse chestnuts when I was quite little. The scattered the ground along the front roadside of my Grandparent’s house. Of course, when they fell from the trees they weren’t the smooth, dark, stone like objects but fierce, pointy things with their protective skins ready to stab feet.

My Grandparents liked to collect sea shells. They were organized in a big drawer in the back kitchen. I can’t seem to recall if they were set by size or color or location. Knowing my Grandma and Grandpa, each had a meaning.

Between these memories, I find I view Victorian sea shell and walnut fancy work pieces sentimentally. I can not help but wonder if a pin cushion was made with shells collected and held onto had a special story or memory.

Victorians were quite skilled at creating items out of found objects. Sea shells and walnuts seemed to be quite popular based on written articles and surviving originals. Sea shells both became items, such as pin cushions or needle-books, and decorated items, such as frames and boxes. Their shapes were also copied in pasteboard. Walnuts became items such as pin cushions, boxes, and little bags.

A small pin cushion can be added to a single shell, sea or walnut, or between two matching shells. Velvet seems to be the most common fabric used in combination with sea shells and walnuts. Some are left plain while others are enhanced with painting, often with the stenciling method called theorem. Want to know more about Theorem Painting? I suggest this article.


To make these shell pin cushions, I used the method from A Girl’s Own Toymaker of a cotton inside covered with the velvet on the face and glued in place. Tip: I wrapped thread around the shells and tied snuggly tied to secure the layers while they dry. Once dry, the thread can be snipped and removed.

One of the most involved and intricate fancy work projects I’ve done are the purse like thimble holders made from a pair of walnut shells. The most nerve wracking part for me was doing the holes without cracking the shell. Period directions call for making these holes using a long sharp needle heated red hot in candle light. I ended up drilling the holes with a dremel tool. In hindsight, I over engineered the bag, shaping it to the shell, while the shape disappears as it is glued in place.

Assorted Directions for Using Walnuts and Shells:

The Girl’s Own Toy-Maker (18) Shell Needle-Book. Procure two shells of the same kind and size; perforated nine small holes round the front of the top one, at equal distances, about half an I ch from the front, and two more at the top part of both shells. Take a narrow piece of sarcenet ribbon, put one into the left hand hole and fasten it there, then the front of the shell, under, and through the second hole, so on to the last, and fasten it off. Cut out pieces of fine white flannel I. A little less, and also the form of the shell, bind it round with the same ribbon; put these inside, and with another ribbon tie them together through the four holes at the top a neat little bow. For the strings in the front some more of the same blue ribbon, and after fasten to each shell, tie together in a little larger bow.
The Girl’s Own Toy-Maker (18) The Shell Pincushion. Many of this kind are extremely pretty, and are easily made. Take a piece of calico, and cut out a pattern of the shape of fig. 2, and large enough to go round just inside the shell; cut another piece, fig 3, sew them together, leave a small hole to put in the bran; fill it, and stitch the remaining portion. Take a piece of blue or red velvet, the shape of fig 2, and sew it all round. Glue the two shells to the cushion, then finish it off with a small bow of the same colored ribbon as the velvet. (Note: Fig 2 is an elongated petal shape the width of the desired shell opening. Fig 3 is best achieved by tracing the shell and adding seam allowance.)
Needle-book. – This we think a very captivating pattern. The five leaves that form one side are covered with green silk, gathered in the center and veined with gold beads. Each leaf is bordered with a cross-stitching of corn-colored silk, and edged with chain-stitch. It may be lined with crimson, and the white flannel leaves that hold the needles inside edged with crimson in buttonhole stitch. Over the joining of the leaves is placed the half
of an English walnut shell, the perforations necessary for attaching it each covered with a large gold bead. The ribbon bows may be either green or brown. (The Lady’s Friend, 1864
398-512 )

Children’s Fancy Work, 1882

Dainty little pincushions and thimble-case can be made out of walnut-shells. Scrape the inside of the shell  till quite smooth, then stuff a little bag of some bright-coloured materials with wadding, making it as nearly as possible the shape of the shell; sew to this a handle—a bit of narrow capwire, covered, answers for the purpose—then drop a little liquid gum into the bottom of the shell and press in the cushion. This can be supplies with a pedestal in the following way: – Take two walnut-shells and pierce a couple holes in the centre  of each (A red-hot iron meat-skewer or knitting-needle will do this beautifully.) Now place the shells together against each other, and tie them together with a string or fix them with wire. In the upper half the cushion is placed; the lower forms the stand. For an emery cushion take two halves of a walnut-shell and having scraped the inside, brush over the outside with copal varnish. In both halves make narrow slits in the middle of the sides. Fill a little coloured silk bag with emery-powder and gum it into one half of the shell. Then join both halves of the shell together by means of a ribbon the slits in one side, and tied in a bow on the outside. Through the openings on the other side draw another piece of ribbon six inches long. This serves to open and close the walnut. A thimble-case is easily made of one half of a shell lined with pink wool stuck on with gum, then inclosed [sic] in a tiny bag of its own shape, but large enough to admit being drawn closely over the opening with a running cord.

Children’s Fancy Work, 1882

Toys made from walnut-shells will please the little ones, and the making of them prove no less enticing.


….. Nos 54 and 55. These two illustrations show a pretty little toy, the “Surprise” Basket, closed and open. Two exactly– fitting halves of a walnut-shell are scraped clean and lined with pink or silver paper. Holes should be carefully drilled all the way around in both shells, and then a frill of narrow lace sew round each for the outside and round the inside of the lower one. This is effected by putting the needle through the holes. The edges are then bound with pale blue silk so put on that the stitches do not show. In the lower half of the shell is a tiny wax or china doll with a tiny quilted covering over it. In the upper shell dolly’s tiny wardrobe is packed. The shell is closed by means of pale blue ribbon, a loop and end being sewn to each half.

Available in my Etsy shop:

Published in: on October 14, 2022 at 6:05 am  Leave a Comment  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: