Two different terms are sometimes used for small sewing kits. The housewife or hussif is usually seen as a cloth container, a roll with compartments for the various tools. An etui, from the old French word meaning to keep, is by contrast a case containing small articles, not necessarily sewing tools. (OED) The term etui dates back to the seventeenth century, as does huswife. The following definition appears in Florio’s 1611 Italian-English dictionary Queen Anna's New World of Words, “Astuccio, an estuife, a pocket cace or little sheath with cizers, bodkin, penknife..in it.” Whether this word is meant to be housewife (say estuife out loud) or etui (which is pronounced e’twee) I don’t know. The corruption of housewife to hussif has been charted, Peacock’s Glossary of words [from Lincolnshire] of 1877 has “Hussif, that is house-wife; a roll of flannel with a pin-cushion attached, used for the purpose of holding pins, needles, and thread.”
Nowadays small sewing kits can appear in your hotel room as one of the freebies, together with toiletries and mini shoe cleaning kits, the example in Figure 1 was obtained from a Novotel hotel somewhere. Small kits can also be purchased, and the small blue case in Figure 1 is one I bought, not least because the small scale of the scissors means it is acceptable to airlines. These kits always contain needles, and may contain small scissors, thimble, thread, pins, buttons, and tape measures, depending on the date of the kit and how comprehensive they are trying to be.
In the World Wars housewives were issued to soldiers by the Red Cross and others, and the Imperial War Museum has both fabric examples and leather examples. Unfortunately the Imperial War Museum does not put any dates on their records. An example of a late nineteenth century small sewing kit from my own collection is shown in Figure 2. The yellow case contains a metal needlecase, buttonhook, crochet hook, scissors, bodkins, and a thimble. I think the missing tool may have been a stiletto. Not all these tools may be original.
Like many examples this etui in the Victoria and Albert Museum, which dates from the last decades of the 17th century, survives but unfortunately has no contents. A fairly complete mid 18th century enamel English etui in the Fitzwilliam Museum contains scissors, a button hook, a bodkin, a file, a stiletto and a bodkin case. In early usage etui could be for all sorts of tools, this mid 18th century shagreen example in the Metropolitan Museum of Art contains drawing instruments, and Figure 3 shows a gold 1570 example in the British Museum, again with drawing implements.
|Figure 3 - 17th century kit from the Victoria and Albert Museum. |
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There is an early sewing kit from the second half of the 17th century, not in a case, which is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, who describe it as a needlecase and scissors. This is very similar to a kit, also in the shape of a small book, described by Taunton
(1997) which is even
smaller (5.8 x 4.5 x 3.9 cm). It contains scissors, a thimble, a notebook with
a dry point writing implement, a mirror and a purse compartment, one side is
padded to both contain the thimble and act as a pincushion. The V&A suggest
that a skilled needlewoman might have made such a kit for herself or as a gift,
but Taunton comments that that she has seen two other compendiums with similar
fittings and silver mounts and apparently identical silk brocade, so she
suggests some may have been made professionally. Delieb (1967) says he has seen another set which he dated to around 1640.
This article has not looked at chatelaines, or other individual articles designed to be hung for waist, perhaps on another day.
Sources and further reading
Delieb, E., 1967. Investing in silver. London: Barrie & Jenkins .
Groves, S. 1968 The history of needlework tools and accessories. London: Hamlyn
Taunton, N., 1997. Antique needlework tools and embroideries. Woodbridge: Antique Collectors Club.