A good workwoman praises her tools

by Erin on March 7, 2007

sewing kit

I travel with an old French sewing kit my friend Thora gave me.

Which, on the face of it, is ridiculous. I love this kit (antique! French! useful!) and would be heartbroken if it were lost. Even though I don't pack it in my carry on, all it would take would be one overzealous or light-fingered TSA agent to decide it was dangerous contraband (small red box full of sharp things?) and it would be Gone Forever.

Here's the inside:

sewing kit

See the cunning little scissors and the darling awl? And the thimble, which I never use? Why on earth would I risk losing this to satisfy the government's desire for Security Theater?

I bring this kit with me for two reasons: first, because I do more sewing in hotel rooms than I have previously cared to admit. (The way it goes is, Erin decides to make new skirt at last minute. Erin does not have time to do hand-hemming of said skirt before packing it. Erin throws appropriate bobbin into sewing kit, stays up way too late in destination city hemming said skirt and watching what is always available on every hotel TV in the land: reruns of Law and Order. Limit one per trip.)

Also, if I left this kit in a drawer at home, I'd probably never use it. I have multiple pairs of new, sharp, ultimately disposable scissors scattered around the house. Ditto seam rippers. (And we all know I don't use thimbles.) The box would sit in a drawer, being kept "safe" (next to all the jewelry I never wear) and that would be tragic. Tools are meant to be used, and every time I use these I am another woman in a line that probably goes back more than a hundred years. Every time I use these little scissors I think fondly of my friend Thora, who is a remarkable person.

Most importantly, every time I use these I enjoy using them. Their beauty somehow improves the mundane work of hemming — it seems to go faster with this little box open beside me. So much of sewing is about enjoying the process (if you don't enjoy the process, it's not worth doing), and this box makes what could be incredibly annoying (hemming a skirt in a hotel room in poor light with the TV blaring — most hotel rooms have two volume settings: mime and football stadium) a small and quiet pleasure.

Here are the scissors and awl out of the box:

sewing kit

If you have a chance, do something with your favorite tools today — write something with your favorite pen. Cook something in your favorite pan. Take a minute to acknowledge the pleasure of good tools …

{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

Ladygrande (Texas Marie) March 7, 2007 at 9:37 am

How lovely! I have some sewing items from my grandmother (1930′s) and treasure them greatly. I will get them out of their lovely little box and use them!May I quote you: “if you don’t enjoy the process, it’s not worth doing”.

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Archivarian (An Archival Library Mistress) March 7, 2007 at 10:03 am

Such an exquisite little kit! It’s so important to take some time out and enjoy the simple pleasures – why wait for company to use good china – you’re worth it! Thank you for the post Erin.

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Kim p. March 7, 2007 at 10:12 am

Though I have a perfectly functional plastic box full of sewing supplies, I always reach for my grandmother’s crumbling wicker sewing basket. Every time I open its little clasp and see the strawberry- and tomato-shaped pincushions, I smile to myself and remember my grandmother teaching me to sew, embroider, and knit. I hope to pass it along to a grandchild someday!

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Cathy March 7, 2007 at 10:19 am

What do you use the awl for?

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Zazzu March 7, 2007 at 10:21 am

For me, what makes the sewing process enjoyable is the time to think while stitching. Not every sewing task requires thought about sewing – it’s lovely to let my mind wander.Ah, Law & Order in hotel rooms. Even in Las Vegas, where TV watching is discouraged (so, hardly any channels available), there’s ALWAYS a L&O episode on. It’s a nice break when the casinos get to be just too much.Cool tools!

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Celeste March 7, 2007 at 10:41 am

Lovely little sewing kit. I especially appreciate the reference to Security Theater, though. It relates to my work in trust and risk aversion, so I am going to have the read the book in which the term was coined. Thanks!

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Zmrzlina March 7, 2007 at 10:48 am

I use the “good dishes” all the time. And fancy wine glasses. And luxury soaps I get for gifts. They are not “tools” like the lovely sewing kit, but to do add joy to the process of eating, drinking and cleaning.And I am right there with you on the whole Security Theatre thing. I fly lots and security is such a farce. I hate checking luggage, but now I am doing so because I don’t want to leave certain favorite lotions and other dangerous items behind.

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La BellaDonna March 7, 2007 at 11:09 am

Oh, don’t say, “if you don’t enjoy the process, it’s not worth doing!” Well, actually, go ahead and say it; Security Theatre notwithstanding, it’s a free country. But if I abided by that motto, I’d never get any sewing done! Ninety-nine percent of my sewing is specifically designed by the Imps of Badness to Make La BellaDonna Crazy, and it succeeds remarkably well in that regard. Impressionable children and Marines are made to cover their ears when I am sewing.But I, too, love my tools. God bless my little sister, who doesn’t sew a stitch (as far as I know), but who keeps an eye out for little oddities, like a cube of pins from 1930, which she bought at an antique shop because she knew I’d love it (I do mend for her, when I can). Or the woman who thanked me for a sewing job by giving me a paper of needles from 1857, before hand needles were tapered!* (It’s a true thing; look at your hand sewing needles. See how they’re wider in the middle? They’re narrowest at the point, but they get thick at the middle, and then narrow towards the eye. Well, once upon a time, they didn’t. The eye was the thickest part, and needles often broke. The steam engine was invented before the tapered sewing needle! The machine gun was invented before the tapered sewing needle! Now, there are probably a few folks out there who’ve had to use pliers to pull a regular hand sewing needle through a big wodge of fabric (yes? no? surely I’m not the only one! Ack!); imagine, if you please, trying to do that with a needle which widened out to the end!** It was no wonder our ancestresses (and ancestors) often found sewing fatiguing; there had to have been a certain amount of “ramming” involved in their sewing techniques. The wonder of it is that they managed to create such beautiful things, regardless!My love of tools notwithstanding, I will forego the pleasure of slamming the non-tapered needles through interlined, bulletproof silk taffeta, at least for the nonce …My first thought, of course, was “Carry On!” when you mentioned that you actually travel with your treasure. I had, of course, forgotten about “Security Theatre;” one of the women I work with had, too. She made the mistake of traveling (inside the U.S.!) with a Very Expensive Italian manicure set. They took the set, extracted the $150.00 scissors, and threw them away!!I love sewing tools. I’m probably not as current as I ought to be on modern ones that would make my life easier; but I leap like a trout to the fly at the prospect of needle cases (Bone needle cases! Ivory needle cases! Sterling silver needle cases!), or darling thread snips, or beeswax sculptures, plus some things that I haven’t been able to identify, Old Time Tools and Toys of Needlework notwithstanding. And yes, I’ve occasionally lost a treasure, like the bone awl (not for piercing, but for threading ribbons), which I paid $3 for at an antique store, and haven’t been able to replace – but it’s better than never having used it. And the same thing goes for jewelry, too – it’s better for it to be worn and lost, then never worn at all. It has no purpose, if it’s not used, except to guest-star on an episode of Clean Sweep.*** And I, by Heaven (or that other place), use my thimbles – even if I mostly use my tailor’s thimbles, which I buy by the half-dozen, and leave in different places (and they’re not so darned cheap, either). (Note to self: if I put the thimble in the thimble case, will I keep the thimble safe, or just lose them both?) My seam rippers are strewn about creation (ably assisted by a cat who steals them); my scissors fare a bit better, although currently a few pairs are missing in action. And I have my eye on a sterling silver reproduction tape measure …(*1867, for those who care; the reference is in Nancy Bradfield.)(**It’s more a matter of, “the tip is narrow, and then the rest of the needle is one width, but still …!)(***Wear your jewelry, Erin, even if it’s just around the house!!)

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Margo March 7, 2007 at 11:19 am

I LOATHE a house full of beautiful tools, packed away or on display, and never used as tools. I use most of my old, beautiful things with the pleasure you described. I have a few old sewing things. My grandmother gave me a sewing basket that I use, even though it’s not quite old enough to be really lovely (it’s the hideous side of the 70s). Your description of hotel TV volume is right on!

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kmkat March 7, 2007 at 11:39 am

I totally love this post! and of course I agree with you. What good are lovely and important objects if you don’t USE them? I seem to lack the collector gene — collecting things just to possess them seems pointless to me — but I love to acquire and use beautiful functional things. Like your sewing kit. Or my really cool corkscrew.

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Rebecca Kessler March 7, 2007 at 11:54 am

Thank the Lord Above I’m not the only one forced to finish last-minute projects (strokes of genius that couldn’t be put off until NEXT Easter, for example) in hotel rooms, etc. Every photo my mom has of me getting ready for senior prom involves needle and thread (and unfortunately seam rippers). In fact, the one of my date pinning on my corsage skillfully cuts me off mid-shoulder, to hide my sister sweating bullets while finishing the last covered button down the back of my dress. Ah, memories… (The wedding dress, however, was finished a solid 12 hours early. See Mom, I can learn.)

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bani March 7, 2007 at 12:03 pm

That’s a beautiful kit… :) But what does one use the awl for? *blush*Nice post, Belladonna, that was interesting! :D

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Zoltar Panaflex March 7, 2007 at 12:09 pm

I think your sewing kit is not only visually lovely, but I’ll bet it’s a dream in the hand, watching them in action.I don’t have anything like that, I wish I did, guess I’ll look for that in shops too.A few years ago, I was feeling very prosperous and I bought a pair of Pinking Shears. They were stupid expensive. But I thought Why Not? I pink a great deal. So I started using them. Those stupid expensive Pinking Shears are downright *painful* to use, I never realized that when I tested them in the store.The best sewing shears I have came from Ikea of all places, they had a plastic box with scissors, two huge bobbins of black and white thread, a pin cushion with pins, and a plastic measuring tape. Best scissors ever, the whole thing was $7 I think. Those shears are my most used piece of sewing items.Anyone want some Pinking Shears?

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Kate March 7, 2007 at 1:04 pm

I love my tools and DO use a thimble. Never used one until I started millinery. So many layers (sometimes heavy buckram) require the thimble to protect end of the finger. After awhile, you wonder how you ever sewed without it. Love knowing I’m not the only last-minute trip sewing enthusiast. You are SO right about process being all.K Q:-)

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Karen March 7, 2007 at 2:16 pm

Gorgeous kit! I wish I had something so pretty to use all the time, maybe I’ll pick something up in an antique shop oneday. I have been enjoying an old button collection I recently inherited. Why is sorting buttons so much fun? It does lead to daydreams of shirtdresses and pretty totes and purses. Coincidentally, one of my kittens returned my favorite pen to me this morning! I’ve been missing it for weeks, he came out from under the bed with it. Now I wonder what else they’ve taken down there…

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Tina W March 7, 2007 at 2:20 pm

What a lovely set! It brings a painful memory to me. My mother promised me her grandmother’s embroidery scissors, beautiful sterling scissors, highly ornate. Then when my neice graduated, Mom presented them to her! She even asked me to find an attractive box to present them in. I bit my lip at the time, and I still pine for those scissors. I did speak up for her thinble collection, though, and I treasure that.

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Anonymous March 7, 2007 at 2:37 pm

sweetest post… I feel so good about tools now…

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Susan March 7, 2007 at 3:10 pm

Travel tip for those who like to travel with their tools, and don’t want to check them…Have a smalled padded postpack, with your address on it, and a stamp. That way, if the TSA want to confiscate it, ask if they mind if you put it in the mail. Most of them won’t, and you can mail it back to yourself. I generally don’t travel with my most expensive embroidery scissors in my carry-on, but have been known to do so if I don’t have checked baggage.I agree with the comment about using your tools. Also, wear your pretty underwear, and don’t keep it for special occasions!

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standgale March 7, 2007 at 3:25 pm

What DO you use an awl for? I use an awl for making eyelet holes which are then hand bound, for use in lacing, for example corsets. I’ve only made two corsets but in those two I have made about 40+ eyelet holes. Actually, I lie, I don’t quite use an awl, I use the tool that I think is a type of awl on my pocket knife, and then a screwdriver. You can also use an awl to push stuff through existing holes. But I would be interested if anyone actually does use it for anything relatively frequently – what holes do people actually make and what do people push through them? Anyway, I want a fancy little sewing kit like that. (how can airport staff be allowed to permanently confiscate or throw people’s possessions away. That is theft, surely. There’s no way that that should be legal. Just because something is a security risk doesn’t give you the right to destroy people’s property. And laws should not be made to allow it.)

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AmandaMay March 7, 2007 at 5:58 pm

what an exquisite box! I am also curious as to what the awl is used for…?

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Tikimama March 7, 2007 at 9:36 pm

That is a lovely set, you are so right to use it. This entry comes at a germane time – I lost my favorite umbrella tonight (it had a little chain attached to the handle! *sob*). Even though we’ve parted, it is lovely to think I used it while we were together. Seeing as I’m already a convert to your Grand Fabric Theory, can you enlighten us in your HOWTO: Actually Sew Something from all that fabric? I have patterns galore, fabric galore…and they sit in boxes. You must be 10x as busy as me, and you’re a Duro factory!

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Anonymous March 8, 2007 at 1:13 am

I’m clueless about the awl as well. -Miriam

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Erin March 8, 2007 at 7:24 am

I use the awl as a kind of crude seam ripper, which is what I think it was intended to be. It’s odd to use a ripper without the split tip, but it works very well! It doesn’t rip so much as unpick.

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Anonymous March 8, 2007 at 7:28 am

I have actually sewed the hem on a skirt in the car, at the beginning of a road trip… Glad to know I’m not the only one that does things like that.

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La BellaDonna March 8, 2007 at 7:58 am

*Sigh* Dress-A-Day doesn’t wuv me any more; yesterday’s other long post was (a) rejected; (b) is in quarrantine; or (c) is still floating around in the ether, waiting to land. Zoltar, Ebay those pinking shears soonest! I wound up with bruised, mashed, sore hands from trying to use nice new pinking shears a quarter of a century ago. The problem is with the shears, and their eeeevil nature. You’re better off trying a rotary blade (with a mat!) and using a pinking wheel in it (yes, they have such a beast). You at least have the option of leaning your body weight into it to cut. Amandamay, Cathy, and all the rest who are curious: What Marie said. The awl is for making a tiny hole in fabric, and then spreading the threads apart in order to make a bigger hole. This is important, because punching a hole, i.e., cutting a bunch of threads, would actually weaken the fabric, and pushing the threads aside doesn’t. It’s used for making the holes that form the patterns in broderie anglaise, which are then whipstitched about; it’s used for making eyelet holes that lace corsets shut (per Marie), which are then whipstitched, and it’s used for making eyelet holes in bodices and/or gowns, which are then whipstitched around. It is very important to whipstitch them, and not use a buttonhole stitch! The raised “bead” formed by the buttonhole stitch gets worn and raggedy very quickly, and the whipstitch is the stitch to use for a strong eyelet. (And if you have access to small iron rings, you can incorporate them in the eyelets for strength, whipstitching over the lot. However, iron doesn’t wash particularly well, so iron would be for dryclean-only garments.) It’s used for anything that requires a small, regular hole: it’s used for belts and shoe straps, and for any sewing which requires you to give your awl.

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Jenn March 8, 2007 at 8:43 am

Beautiful! I understand what you mean by favorite tools. I’m a budding bookmaker, and I would be so sad if my paper knife, bone folder, or glue brushes…Those are lovely, useful tools. And I’m sure they’re glad to get lots of use. :-)

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Theresa March 8, 2007 at 8:59 am

What a beautiful and thoughtful gift. I have a lot of things that were my grandmother’s. My two favorite items are a flour sifter and two brass bells that look like Dutch ladies wearing long skirts. She used to let me play with them as a child, usually within minutes of arriving at her house after a long trip from Va to upstate New York. I used to have her old Singer sewing machine, but lost it in one of my frequent moves.I also have most of her colleciton of cookbooks complete with her hand written notes on which recipes were good, which ones she intended to try and which ones she had to motify to make come out right. I too write in the cookbooks now. Maybe someday my daughter (and future generations will carry on). I plan on compiling all her clipped and hand written recipes into a book for my sisters and mother. I still have a few of her sewing supplies. I used to have her sewing cabinet until my mom asked me if my father could have it…so I gave it to Mom. This year I found out she gave it to a family friend and I was so hurt and dissapointed. My fiance promises to buy me a new one as a wedding gift. Such a good man. (He bought my sewing machine for Christmas and takes me on one fabirc and pattern buying outing per weekend.) I promise to tour the John Deere Factory on our way to our honey moon. I am sure there will be plenty of interesting fabric stores in Miami and South Beach. I guess we better start negotiating now. BTW – for those of you wholack fabric stores in your area – have you heard Wal Mart is doing away wiht theri fabric department? I know it’s not the best place to by fabric, but where else can you go at 3 am when you’re jonesing for a fabric fix? I now have absolutely no reason to ever go in a Wal Mart again (so I guess there is an upside?)

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enc March 8, 2007 at 9:01 am

What a nice post. I love the whole thing, but really, my favorite part is the bit about volume (mime or football stadium)!

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oracle March 8, 2007 at 7:30 pm

You know, la belladonna, I posted a message to you here about a week ago when I was visiting Chicagoland, and it’s *still* lost in space, apparently! I was trying to express appreciation for how kind you are to people. I don’t remember all of it, but I remember the main sentence: I love what you do.P.S. — I *did* go to Vogue Fabrics in Evanston in the end, and got the Purple Line Express both ways! And bought that gorgeous hand-dyed batiked denim-like twill with every colour of the rainbow in it … six yards of it. I hope I was following the fabric rules well enough! It was well enough for me, anyway! And brought it back to Ontario in its big plastic bag in my suitcase so that it wouldn’t rub off its colours onto my clothes with the rocking of the train (and the bus, and the train). I shall pore over that fabric now for as long as I can imagine …

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S. March 9, 2007 at 8:59 am

Lovely treausures.

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La BellaDonna March 12, 2007 at 8:44 am

Oracle, how nice! Thank you. I don’t see that my posts differ from 99% of the others here (there IS that 1%, usually anonymous, too), but I appreciate the compliment.And I apologise for misdirecting anyone who’s been poring over her/his Nancy Bradfield; the information about the tapered sewing needle is actually in Janet Arnold (Patterns of Fashion, Book 2, page 3).I don’t wish to make it any worse, but what’s up with these mothers who’ve promised things to their daughters and given them away to other people??? Precious family things, no less. I’d ask why is something that holds family memories going outside the direct line, except people have a right to distribute things as they see fit – unless, of course, they’ve already promised them somewhere else. I don’t wish to stir up an unpleasant kettle of fish (or some better metaphor), but for those who’ve been hurt in that fashion (and it’s a big hurt, I know), I’d suggest … if you’re able, you might want to ask, “Mom, why did you give the thus-and-so to someone else, when you’d promised it to me? It hurt my feelings a lot when you did that.” I suggest it because it’s the kind of thing that festers for years, and it’s good to give the other person a chance to mend fences, while there’s still time.

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oracle March 15, 2007 at 4:01 pm

I don’t know if anyone’s going to come back and read more of this thread by now, but la belladonna is quite right that there are *many* kind and generous folks who post here.la belladonna, I just wanted to comment on *your* kindness because what you do for others touches me personally quite often. So I was moved to say something to you. However, I did not intend to shine the kind of light upon you that would cause others to diminish by comparison. I don’t like to see that sort of thing constructed, either. It’s never fair, and it ain’t right.

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La BellaDonna March 16, 2007 at 8:30 am

Oracle, in turn, I’d like to say I hope I didn’t appear ungracious, or as if I was belittling the worth of the compliment. Quite the reverse, in fact; I was also reminding myself about the many wonderful folks here, so that I didn’t swell like a peacock. I don’t get an awful lot of affirmation in my non-Dress-A-Day life, and it definitely made my day.

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oracle March 16, 2007 at 11:28 pm

la belladonna, you did not appear to me to be ungracious, or any such thing. I read it that you did not want to see others diminished by comparison. That would say to me that you are not, or don’t want to be, competitive — or at least not in a way that might be harmful to others. Actually, I feel quite sure that your general graciousness comes through in these blog comments to more folks than just me. And I this makes me think that it was your graciousness that I was in fact commenting upon in the first place! In any case, I’m glad it made your day.How shall I know that you read this?

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Arabonita December 5, 2007 at 8:26 am

Oh my God! I love that kit, I’m a fashion designer and that’s the most beautiful kit I’ve ever seen. Take good care of it and don’t sell it even if the price is right

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