MillWorks: Articles: Sewing Needle Books

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Sewing Needle Books


Packs of sewing needles nowadays are rather humdrum, and certainly uninspiring, often just coming sealed to a plain cardboard backing. Certainly, this type of mundane design has been around for a while, as seen in this vintage package of Boye tapestry needles made in England, of all places!
However, not too long ago, women also could collect precious little cardboard needle books with images. The two that I have were printed in Japan.

The one seen here features a younger girl on the left, seemingly being taught to sew by her mother and an older sister. It reads (all in capital letters): "Happy home rust proof needle book[.] Nickel[-]plated[.] 60 assorted gold eye needles and threader."
I have seen this same needle book, without intentionally looking for it, in an antiques store, so it is probably one that was not uncommon.
Needle books are not commonly marked with a date, making it difficult to place them in history. This one is believed to have been available as early as the 1930s, though based on the dresses worn, it's easier for me to imagine its subjects being placed in a 1940s era at the earliest. No matter its correct decade, it evokes nostalgia for learning a new skill that has been passed down through the generations.
Turned over, the needle book has the exact same image on it, and not reversed. And while the exterior images of needle books are decorative and exciting, the inside may hold even more surprises!
It's possible the needle book will contain a pop-up scene inside. Or, it may be filled with multiple colors of foil. The two that I have contain colored foil in green, gold, red, and purple. The foils are used to hold the needles in place.
Helping to depict sewing as an industrious and intricate art form, the foils are embossed with intertwining spider webs! Here, I have adjusted the exposure on a foil to remove the color and darken the design to better show the webs.

The other decorated needle book that I have reveals a couple of naughty little kittens in a scene that would certainly cause gasps by pet owners of today! The two kittens are each playing with thread, while eight needles are splayed out amongst them. It declares, in wordplay, "Bestmaid needles." In smaller print, it reads: "100 assorted gold and silver eye needles with threader."
This needle book is also not dated, so it is difficult to place in a specific era. Because it was owned by the same mother and daughter as the "Happy Home" book, I would place it circa 1940s.
Many needle books are missing a lot of their needles, and/or the included needle threader. This is because they were not purchased for collecting, but for using. While the metal needles inside are thus not necessarily anything out of the ordinary, it's nice to imagine that the cheerful and colorful images, as well as the decorative interiors of the cases, helped to make sewing and mending tasks more tolerable.
My "Happy home" needle book seems to make a promise about how its needles will impact the user. Though not all of the needle books made such declarations, other needle books seemed to promise optimistic outcomes as well, such as "Fashion quality," and "Happy little tailors."
One has to wonder how needle books eventually fell out of fashion, giving way to the more utilitarian, plain, blister-packed variety. What were once everyday items are now reminders of the beauty of old-time craftsmanship, design, and art.

Says:

The products seen in this article are ones that I inherited from my aunt's and grandmother's collection. The type of needle book I like best and use is a homemade fabric one. These cardboard ones seem a little too precious to use. That being said, every missing needle is a reminder that the books were well-used and appreciated for their intended purpose.

Have fun!

Providing crafts since October 2011. Copyright 2012.