Pins & Pincushions

Early people needed a way to keep their clothes together whether it was a bone or stick. Once metal ores were discovered, craftsmen created more refined pins used for clothing, hair, hats, luggage closures, and as a sewing tool. As manufacturing techniques evolved, so did the production of the pin, moving from a somewhat bulky object to a fine wire. In the late 1800’s, it took up to 6 people to create one pin. The labor intensive process resulted in approximately 5,000 pins in one day, which I thought was an outstanding number. By 1820 Gloucester, United Kingdom, was a major producer of pins, involving almost 20% of the population in the manufacturing process.

However, with the help of Robert Hoe, who invented a printing press, Dr. Howe created a pin-making machine. The Howe Manufacturing Company began production in 1835 and could produce 70,000 pins daily! Many of the early pin manufacturers were located in the United Kingdom and Germany. One of the early German companies was a brass mill owned by William Prym. A descendent, Hans Prym was responsible for moving the company to the United States in the early 1900’s. You are probably familiar with the Prym-Dritz Corporation located in Spartanburg, South Carolina. While they are the largest manufacturer of pins today, their production facilities are located in Malaysia, China, Mexico and Hong Kong. However, there are several smaller companies even here in the United States that still manufactures pins.

Pins don’t have to be boring any more. Check out some of these fancy pins to enhance our projects!

There is enough information available just to write a newsletter on the pin but I wanted to look more at pin cushions. So, to learn more about the anatomy of a pin, types, weights, uses, and specialty types, go to this wonderful article by Threads magazine.


The word "pin" has found its way into our speech. Have you ever wondered why we say some of these things?

"Neat as a pin" is often used to say someone is tidy or organized. While it’s exact origin was not found, many sites referred to the fact that the manufacturing process put the pin through several steps to make it uniform and clean. Along that same thought process, there is also Bright as a new pin.

"On pins and needles" conveys an anxious feeling similar to the inability to sit comfortably if you were literally sitting on pins and needles. I don’t know about you, but I know that physical feeling first hand!

"Pin money" came about because the early pins were expensive and the husband would give his wife an allowance she used to buy sewing supplies.

"You could have heard a pin drop." It conveys that it was so quiet that you could have heard even the smallest thing, like a pin, hit the floor. While this saying has been around almost as long as the pin itself, it is still making headlines. (the rumor verification website) cited a statement made by Colin Powell. After the statement was made the article said "It became very quiet in the room. You could have heard a pin drop."

Okay, if we were a seamstress in ancient days a big concern was how to care for these expensive tools. In the beginning, the pins and needles were kept in cases made of whatever was available, wood, leather cases, bone, etc. Sewing supplies were such a necessity that they were often worn from the woman’s waist, like with a chatelaine. Many sewing accessories were even mentioned in wills and lists of assets.

As with many other things, our needlework supplies became more affordable and we had more personal time during the Victorian era to stitch non-essential items. One of the reasons pin cushions evolved in Victorian times was because they were approved "fancy work". This meant it was a project a woman was allowed to work on during social calls. Several types of pincushions were created during this period: Pin stuck/pin pillow, cushion, pinball, disc, and figural.

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.

These were often just ornamental keepsakes because the use of the pins would ruin the design.

The Cushion type is exactly as it sounds. The pin cushion part fitted into a base like a cup, sea shell, walnut half, etc. Here are a couple of examples:

Pin balls were usually a round pin cushion suspended at the end of a long ribbon which the woman wore on her belt. Over time, they were no longer worn on the belt but kept in the sewing box. Pin Poppet was another ball-shaped pin cushion. The Quaker Ball gives you a chance to create quite an elaborate ball.

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.

We have probably all seen a reproduction of the figural pincushion. These pin cushions were usually in the shape of a shoe, an animal, or an elegant lady.

Some pin cushions were an integrated part of an etui such as these:

I am wondering if we can add a new type of pin cushion to this list, the biscornu? Some are made as scissors fobs, but a majority are larger so they would be suitable as a pin cushion. I’ll let you decide. Here are some examples:

Today we also have magnetic pin cushions, although I am of the opinion they cannot be called pin cushions because we don’t physically stick the pin into the device.

Red Tomato Trivia

When I think of a pin cushion, I immediately get a mental picture of the red tomato pin cushion. It is interesting that tomatoes gained such status because they were considered evil, poisonous and even associated with witches. Read more about the history at this website.

I am not sure if they were considered to be evil how they later got the reported ability to repel evil. Tomatoes were placed on a mantle or near an entry to ward off evil spirits. Tomatoes were also a popular "housewarming" gift to attract good spirits to a new house. The problem was that tomatoes had a short growing season and were not often available when needed, so people made fabric versions.

It is not known how it then became a pin cushion. However, it seems like superstitions follow stitchers, so I can see a stitcher putting one a tomato in her stitching baskets to bring good luck. Then if she had loose pins and a stuffed tomato, why not stick them into the tomato. Of course, many of the tomatoes were stuffed with wool or saw dust so the pin cushion actually helped preserve the pins. The result was a good thing and the tomato pin cushion became a stitching basket staple.

Here are a couple of pin cushion kits so you can create your own right now!

So, my next question was why is there usually an emery bag shaped like a strawberry attached to the tomato? My resource library and the Web really let me down on this one! I could not find an answer any where. However, after reading a lot about tomatoes, the color red, warding off evil, lucky tomatoes, etc. I am speculating the development of the strawberry emery may have gone something like this discussion among a group of stitchers. "My needles and pins don’t stay sharp with all the sewing I am doing. My tomato works great for keeping them bright, but I could use something to sharpen them also. I have heard about this new product called emery (discovered in Smyrna in the early 1800’s). Emery is expensive but if it keeps my pins sharp it might be worth the price. How should we store it? What about the tomato which brings us health and good fortune. But we already use it for pins and I might get them confused. I do like the bright red color (which also has religious and spiritual significance.) Okay, what other fruits or vegetables are red? I know, what about a strawberry? Yes, it is red, a fruit, it is small so the emery powder won’t cost much, and we can use scraps of fabric in our baskets. Great idea! Let’s attach it to the tomato so they will be handy." Remember this was just my imagination trying to figure out how the strawberry emery was born. If you know how it really came about please let me know!!!

Create your own emery with these products:

I hope this brought back some memories of times spent perhaps looking through grandma’s sewing basket or stitching along side older friends and relatives. I found a lot of really cute pin cushions to draw inspiration from to create my pin cushions for the tea cup exchange. Now to get started on them!

We hope this guide makes your stitching easier and more enjoyable!

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“The following article was written by Debi Feyh of Nordic Needle and published in their weekly e-mail newsletter. Permission was granted by Nordic Needle to share this article in (name of your publication). For information on subscribing to their weekly e-mail newsletter, visit A free mail-order catalog is available to you upon request if you live in the USA or Canada.”

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