Post #10. On the pincushion

Anyone who has misplaced their pincushion and found herself sitting at her machine with a mouthful of pins will agree that a pincushion is a very necessary item.

I have been making pincushions to sell at the village market and this prompted me to do a bit of research on the pincushion. Is it really a necessary item? People do buy them, so I assume that it is and have made a new batch to display at the Easter market.

These pincushions are made from a South African fabric called shweshwe. The word is pronounced as it is spelt. There is a long story of how this indigo printed European fabric came to be popular and acculturalised in South Africa. When I was a girl we called it German print. Apparently the name shweshwe came to be used because French missionaries in the 1840s gave the cloth to Lesotho’s King Moshoeshoe I as a gift. It was known in Lesotho as shoeshoe, after the King. The word was later modified to shweshwe (

My shweshwe pincushions have variously been compared to sea urchins and pumpkins (both taken as compliments) and come in three sizes of small, medium and large. I made the large one as a bit of a joke for my sewing table and then found it to be extremely useful for holding safety pins. No more do I have to untangle a jumble of intertwined safety pins from the storage tin when I am pinning a quilt. (Pin basting the three layers together in preparation for the actual quilting.)

My large pincushion with its assortment of pins and needles

I also use a small pincushion (10 cm in diameter) that lives next to my sewing machine. Here’s a photograph of the small and the large one together, for a bit of perspective.


Embroidery artist Marna Lunt wrote in a blog post of 27 November 2015 that the pincushion is a sewer’s best friend. It seems that pincushions were invented in order to provide a resting place for valuable pins. Pins have been used for thousands of years but were manually handcrafted until the Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s. Before mass production, the pin was a delectable treat for embroiderers. They were so expensive that ‘pin money’ was set aside as an allowance for sewing supplies. The pincushion was born sometime during the Middle Ages to keep precious, pricey pins safe.

The pastime of embroidery was for the rich and the pincushion became a status symbol, often worn from the waist like a chatelaine and even mentioned in wills and lists of assets.

In the 17th Century layette pincushions were given as gifts on the birth of a baby, with names, dates and messages spelled out with pins. A pincushion was considered to be  a precious gift and the layette pincushion was made with considerable skill, often using silk.

During the Victorian era it became popular to present new home owners with a red tomato pincushion. Generally tomatoes were used in the household to repel evil spirits, and were often given as a housewarming gift to attract good spirits to a new home. Because real tomatoes do not last for long people made fabric versions. The pincushions were stuffed with sawdust, wool or emery to preserve and keep the pins sharp. (

May the full moon shine on you over this weekend.

5 thoughts on “Post #10. On the pincushion

  1. I had no idea about pincushions! I think I need to get one. I have an old Altoids tin full but it’s hard to get them out and I’m forever sticking myself.


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