The sewing basket, or box, was an essential item in most households in the past. It generally belonged to the woman (or women) in a house and reflected the many sewing tasks that were part of everyday life.

Until the 1860s almost all clothing was made by hand, whether in the home, or in a dressmaking establishment, and it involved hours and hours of sewing. Household linen was also made at home, with fabric sold in lengths for sheets or towels, ready to be hemmed. Sewing a neat seam and hemming with tiny stitches, were skills taught to girls from an early age. Not surprisingly, the invention of the domestic sewing machine was welcomed immediately. It was often the first labour-saving item to be purchased.

Making and mending

Altering clothing and mending were other ever-present tasks. A skilled needleworker could refurbish clothing from one season to the next and extend the life of children’s clothing as they grew. Hems were let down, tears mended, collars ‘turned’, and stockings darned. This work was often done in the evenings, or in company with other family members. Women rarely sat down without their sewing. At a time when maintaining a respectable appearance was paramount, a skilled needlewoman could make a substantial contribution to a family’s social standing.

Sewing was seen as an essential female skill until the 1970s. Thereafter it declined in importance in the face of cheap imported clothing and changing ideas about woman’s place.