A pincushion (or pin cushion) is a small cushion, typically 3–5 cm (1.2–2.0 in) across, which is used in sewing to store pins or needles with their heads protruding so as to take hold of them easily, collect them, and keep them organized.
Pincushions are typically filled tightly with stuffing, so as to hold pins rigidly once placed. Magnetic pin cushions are also sometimes used; though technically they are not "cushions", they serve the same basic function of holding pins neatly.
The recorded origins of pincushions date back to the Middle Ages of Europe. In the English language, they became known by many names: "pimpilowes, pimpilos, pimplos, pimploes, pin-pillows, pin-poppets". In 1376, Jehanne de Mesnil was bequeathed a silver pin case in a French text called Testament of Advice written by a woman known as La Monteure, from Rouen. Other references to pin cases during the Medieval era exist. By the 16th century, these were supplanted by references to "pyn pillows". Some examples from various parts of Europe survive that have elaborate embroidery. Small porcelain baskets with a pin cushion inside were highly popular, as were small cushions such as wedding pillows or maternity pillows, embroidered with messages.
During the 18th century, weighted pincushions became popular among seamstresses. In England, seam clamps attached to a table and designed for holding hems for sewing became common, and were often in the shape of a bird (the tail would be pinched to open and close the "beak" to hold the fabric); attached to the back of the bird was a velvet pin cushion.
One popular design—a tomato with a strawberry attached—was most likely introduced during the Victorian Era. According to folklore, placing a tomato on the mantel of a new house guaranteed prosperity and repelled evil spirits. If tomatoes were out of season, families improvised by using a round ball of red fabric filled with sand or sawdust. The good-luck symbol also served a practical purpose—a place to store pins. Typically, the tomato is filled with wool roving to prevent rust, and the strawberry is filled with an abrasive to clean and sharpen the pins.
Porcelain pincushion dolls, or half-dolls, were fashionable in late 19th-century Europe, and remain collectable today. Millions were made and sold during the 19th century, but due to their fragility, examples in excellent condition remain scarce. The form resembles a typical china figurine of a beautiful woman, but the porcelain doll ends at the waist, where holes are included in the design to allow the half-doll to be stitched to a pincushion. The pincushion half of the doll may be made of satin fabric and trimmings to resemble a skirt.
The original popularity of the pincushion dolls continued into the early 20th century, and some styles reflect Art Deco or similar 20th-century styles. The most collectable examples are from pre-World War II Dresden and Meissen, which may sell for around $500 US when the condition is perfect. More common designs in imperfect condition sell for less than $25 US. Similar dolls were produced to top the covers of tissue boxes, jewelry boxes, or tea pot cosies. Some uncommon examples are nude and have a risque style.
- Biscornu, a type of pin cushion
- Whiting, Gertrude (1971) . Old-Time Tools & Toys of Needlework. Courier Dover Publications. p. 150. ISBN 9780486225173.
- Whiting, Gertrude (1971) . Old-Time Tools & Toys of Needlework. Courier Dover Publications. p. 151. ISBN 9780486225173.
- Whiting, Gertrude (1971) . Old-Time Tools & Toys of Needlework. Courier Dover Publications. p. 153. ISBN 9780486225173.
- "Sewing Pincushion". About.com.
- Hogben, Michael and Linda Abrams (2009). Collecting Under the Radar. Red Rock Press. ISBN 9781933176475.
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