Wednesday 24 June 2015

When a silver thimble was wedding bling ...

Yesterday morning I was racing through gallery 116 at the Victoria & Albert Museum when I chanced upon a little exhibition called A Stitch in Time. Well, in truth it's little more than one display case on the bridge of the marble stairway that runs up to the third floor, so it's a teeny weeny bit extravagant of the good folk down at the V&A to bill it as an exhibition, but, nevertheless, it made me stop and think.

Until the second half of the nineteenth century us regular folk - not the Great and the Good with their fashionable tailors, costumiers, hosiers and milliners - would have had to get by with home-made clothes. Today sewing, knitting and the other textile crafts are regarded as hobbies, something we do for fun, but back in the day they were essential life skills for all but the wealthiest heiresses.

A good wife and mother had many talents, and not least among them was the ability to clothe her family. Being nifty with a needle was, for many, as important as being able to read and count. It was certainly a talent that a young woman would have wanted to flaunt. Oh, yes, back in the day being nifty with a needle would have been regarded as just a little bit sexy.

Catherine of Aragon continued to make undershirts for Henry VIII even after he jilted her for Anne Boleyn, and I can't help but believe that in her darkest hours the superiority of her needlework over that of her rival must have been a source of some satisfaction to the poor abandoned woman, and of more than a little irritation to her usurper.

And, talking of sewing being sexy, allow me to show you the only x-rated sewing thimble of my acquaintance:

I'm as blind as a fruit bat ... so I got a BIG surprise when I focussed in on the fine detail of the engraving with my zoom lens ... ! It's English silver with gold gilding and dates from 1600. The inscription, some of which you can make out in the photograph, reads: La puissance d'amour/ Desire n'a mon repos. This translates as The power of my love/ My desire has no rest, which, by my reckoning, makes it one steamy digit protector. The chaste folk at the V&A suggested that it was a gift by a man to his wife or his wife-to-be. What I'd really like to know is whether she ever had the courage to take it out in public ... .

And here's a pair of fabric shears, together with their protective sheath that also date from about 1600:

They are from Italy, and were made from engraved steel, inlaid with mother of pearl. These would have formed part of a bride's wedding trousseau, and the wealth and social standing of her family would have been underlined by their sophistication and expense. In her new matrimonial home the bride would have used them to cut out fabric for sewing into either household linen or garments. They probably lived within reaching distance of their owner for all of her life.

And just look at these elaborate scissors:

They were made from cut steel in Wolverhampton in 1780. They think the AM on the blade shaft stands for Abnor Morton, the cutler who made them. These were also designed for cutting fabric, and each time their owner used them the little love birds on the handles would have come together as though they were kissing. The blades resemble an obelisk supported by two dogs standing on either side of an urn. The experts think that these may have been heraldic devices, taken from their owner's coat of arms. I'd like to think that they were given to a much-loved lady by her adoring husband and that they stand testament to a long and happy life of conjugal bliss.

Now here's a question for you: what do you think these gizmos were for?

Is anyone running through the accessory list from Fifty Shades of Grey? Wrong ... quack, quack, oops ... these are work holders, used before the advent of the sewing machine to hold material taut and straight for cutting and sewing. They'd have been fastened onto the edge of a table, and the padded velvet tops would have served as pin cushions.

And take a look at this one:

It's a cotton winder, for winding sewing thread. Just look at how both it and the work holders have been fashioned from cut steel to sparkle and shine. You can see a design aesthetic that was calculated to appeal to female tastes. Honestly if they weren't so big and heavy they'd look great pinned to your lapel as brooches. Back in the early 1800's they would have been expensive, stylish accessories that would have been shown off with some pride by their owner as she and her friends worked sociably together by candlelight.

I have always loved the japanned metal work on my grandmothers' old sewing machines. But just look at this marvellous object: 

Isn't it a thing of beauty? It was made in London in about 1875, and would have been proudly displayed by a middle class lady in her drawing room. These machines were marketed as essential and easy-to-use accessories for the organised housewife, but their exquisite gilding and beautiful decoration had clearly been calculated to turn them into display pieces that would doubtless have excited envy in anyone who beheld them.

Now I think we've established that sewing was sexy, but here's another thought: until the Married Women's Property Act of 1870 married women could own nothing of their own after marriage. Not a shilling, not a cow, not an acre of land. Nada! On their wedding day everything passed to, vested in and became the property of their husbands. So, in a way, the contents of their sewing boxes, these lovely objects fashioned by feminine good taste, were the only things that they could truly claim as their own. And that gave me pause for thought in the middle of a crowded museum on a busy Tuesday morning.

All the best for now,

Bonny x


  1. Great reminder. I like to sew, but if had to make all clothes, etc. would definitely not be skilled in doing that. I like to make what I want, not have to. As a child, I always admired my Aunt. She could sew by hand as good as any sewing machine. :)

  2. A Stitch in Time, what a great name for an exhibition like this.
    I am definitely not a good wife as I don't have the ability to clothe my hubby. ;)
    Oh my at that x-rated sewing thimble, how brilliant is that?! :D
    Thank you for the lovely virtual tour, Bonny. xo

  3. Wow this certainly was interesting. That was quite the thimble. I think I would have enjoyed this museum.

  4. How far we have come since the time when sewing was an art form. I used to sew my own clothes in high school but I'm glad I could do it because I wanted to, not out of need. This is a fascinating little exhibit--thanks for sharing it with us!