The Sewing Basket

Posted by:
Susan Rooke
July 6, 2017

Do you remember the days when virtually every household had a sewing basket? How many of you out there still have one in your house? Not a travel-size sewing kit with itsy scissors, three or four colors of thread, replacement buttons and a small pack of needles. A basket. It could be the capacious, old-fashioned kind that stands on four legs like an end table. Or the more portable plastic kind with a handle, plus compartmented storage for sewing notions and a lid that’s padded on the underside so you can pincushion the needles you’ve used.

That’s the kind I have.

And boy, am I a fraud.

At least three times in my life I’ve tried to learn the art of sewing. The mother of a childhood friend (“Long thread, lazy girl,” she’d tell me with a meaningful smile). A professional seamstress holding classes at a local department store. My first mother-in-law. All of them tried to teach me. Each time, with a lot of hands-on guidance, I managed to make some article of clothing. I also learned I have no patience for sewing. You can’t Wite-Out, cross through, type over, or delete your mistakes. You can’t decide they taste flat and punch them up with a splash of lemon juice or a spoonful of pesto. You have to painstakingly cut and pull out the threads of your mistakes and then resew them. Hopefully, this time in the right place. I have enormous admiration for people who can sew. But I’d rather suck on old pennies.

Nevertheless, I own a sewing basket.

I have no idea when I bought this thing. I’m not even sure I did. I’ve had it so many decades that its origins are sunk in the cold, turbid bog of time. It’s possible my mother gave it to me in my late teens, when I first set up housekeeping on my own.

My mother knew a few basics, like sewing on buttons, simple hem repair, or even how to darn socks. Her mother had tried to teach her more, but crafting a garment with zippers or buttonholes or darts remained forever beyond her skills. When I was a little girl, my mother made me two capes: one to wear when I pretended to be a spy (it doubled as a witch cape), one for playing fairytale prince. (I never wanted to be a fairytale princess. Their lives seemed boring: just a lot of sitting around—doubtless passing the time by sewing—and waiting for the prince to show up.) It was so far outside her comfort zone to make these things that I treasured them deeply, and still have them . . . somewhere . . . packed in a moving box in the garage.

Nowadays, since virtually any kind of repair to our clothing can be taken care of cheaply (button replacement is free!) at our cleaners’, I don’t pull out the sewing basket more than two or three times a year. Today, though, I needed it for the first time since moving into our forever home in late February. I had to search in several places before I finally found it.

And it was like opening a time capsule.

Note the cigarette in the bow-tied gentleman's hand.

It’s been ages since I last looked through the contents. I was kind of shocked to see how old many of the buttons are—at least 60 to 70 years. Once upon a time they probably lived in my grandmother’s sewing basket. The St. Peter’s patch is from a school my big brothers attended when they were little boys. (I think. I’m not sure I was even born yet.) The ornate-looking crown patch is a leftover from the fairytale prince cape.

I can’t foresee a need for those weensy pearl buttons in the last photo. (And good lord, that man's got a cigarette too!) I don’t do any sort of craftwork, and at this point in my life, can’t really spare the time to learn. In fact, I can’t foresee a need—ever—for nearly all the basket holds. So why do I still box it up and lug it from house to house? What does this basket do for me that a travel-sized sewing kit can’t? Is twice a year enough use to justify keeping it?

Probably not. But I’m not ready to let it go, especially after picking through it today. The upside is, since we’re living in what’s meant to be our last home, at least I shouldn’t have to move it again.

Sometimes we leave a keepsake to our children so they’ll have a cherished item to remember us by. And sometimes we do it so that it’ll be the child’s job to throw the damn thing out.

Lucky Katie. You’ll get a sewing basket some day!

On another note, I hope everyone had a safe and happy 4th of July! I want to say a huge thank-you to all who’ve downloaded Chapter One of The Space Between! If you haven’t yet, but you’d like to, you’ll find the option to download on the Novels page (go to the Works tab in the Menu bar at the top of the page and choose Novels). Publication is just a little over two months away!

14 comments on “The Sewing Basket”

  1. Yes, I have a sewing box but it is falling apart. I've had it since I was a teenager. I did know how to sew, but it's been quite a while. I've been thinking of trying my hand at it again, since I dislike the clothes I find in stores. Either way, to me the sewing box is like a tool box, and what if I need the tools? What if an emergency need arises for snaps or fuchsia thread and I am caught unprepared? It won't do. I also have a big jar of buttons, and absolutely no idea why. Every time I buy a piece of clothing with a spare button it goes into the jar.

    Anyway, your box is an interesting throwback. I love the smoking bow-tied guy (for some reason he looks to me like a high school science teacher) and also the patches. You should put them on your denim jacket (you DO have a denim jacket, don't you?).
    I also love your description of the origins being "sunk in the cold, turbid bog of time" and that you'd "rather suck on old pennies" than sew. Made me laugh. Great post!

    1. Thank you, Claire, I'm happy you enjoyed it!

      It IS a toolbox; that's a good way to think of it. It just happens to be full of tools I'll never use again. There's one, though--elastic. That's why I got the basket out in the first place. Long story, but the floor mop's washable cloth head lost its elastic, so I need to sew some on. As old as it is, though, there's no telling if it'll have any stretch left in it.

      In high school and college I had a denim jacket, and I'd sewn on lots of patches. I have no idea what I did with it, but it's long gone. Too bad. I could've left THAT to Katie too! 😉

  2. Those tiny shirt buttons were probably used as front and back buttons (shirts probably had buttonholes on both sides). In the days of hot presses buttons broke a lot. A double button could be taken out before laundering and put back again later. I just saw something like that on an Indian kurta my husband bought recently. As to the rest of the sewing basket: I have a whole rolling small chest serving the same purpose, except that it is full of mostly Indian silks bought in the enthusiasm of the moment and never made into the intended garment. Fortunately I found a brand new sari in it which I could use for the recent wedding function. Just the other day I surveyed the inventory for my next sewing projects.

    1. My goodness, Christa, your sewing box sounds much larger (and certainly more interesting) than mine. No sari, brand new or otherwise, would ever fit in it. What a nice surprise for you to find one in yours! The lingerie straps made me laugh when I pulled those out. The days of women worrying over whether their straps were showing or not seem so quaint and distant now!

  3. Ah, Susan, your blog hits very close to home, only us guys shan't talk of OUR tool boxes, shall we? Let's face it, a sewing basket has much less to do with actually sewing anything than collecting stuff on the outside chance it will be pressed into service some day, and then of course, we would really, really need it. Not being one who sews, the closest thing I can equate to this prized and essential part of a well-managed home is the junk drawer. Everyone has one. Separately I will send you my poem about ours. Great story, Susan, and don't you dare throw away one single essential item in that basket! Especially not those bra strap thingies.

    1. Hahahahaha!! John, I promise I won't throw away the bra strap thingies! Or anything else in there, for that matter. You're so right. It isn't about the actual sewing, or the actual cobbling together of something essential. It's about the future "just in case" moment, and what then? You'd be toast without it. I can't wait to read your junk drawer poem!

  4. Yours is much prettier than mine, Susan! But I find a use for mine every other month or so. Just the other day I reattached a button and re-hemmed some binding on my nightgown. But real sewing (like clothes, or even curtains) is way outside my league. You have to be detail oriented in a way that is completely outside my brain capacity. Thanks for sharing your treasures...I enjoyed the post!

    1. Thank you, Diana, I'm glad you enjoyed it! And I have to tell you: I was thinking about you when I wrote it. I don't know what your seamstress capacities are (well, I do now, I guess!) but I know your craftwork talents are huge. I was looking at those microscopic buttons and thinking, "I'm clueless, but I bet Diana would be able to do something creative with these!" 🙂

  5. Susan, I love this post! I have a sewing basket too! However, I love to sew and to be honest, I'm good at it. The relics you found in your basket resemble the ones in my basket.

    1. Do they really?? That's awesome, Salina! What I turned up seemed so ancient that it almost could have been used in Colonial Williamsburg. I'm glad to know you have similar relics (great word!) in your sewing basket. It doesn't surprise me that you sew well. Your research into your historical subject matter is so precise that I had a feeling your sewing would be just as skillful and detail-oriented.

      I'm so happy we've struck up this correspondence! Yesterday I tried to respond to the replies you'd made to my comments on your blog, but I don't think I succeeded. Just as I tried to submit a comment, our internet went out, and stayed out for several hours. The joys of country life. But I want you to know how much I enjoy your posts, and I appreciate your kind words about mine! 🙂

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