A Snowy Day Reflection on Sewing Boxes

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I have three sewing boxes sitting close to one another in a closet. Each one is an artifact from the lives of distinct individuals – my mother, my aunt Lena, and me. My mom and Lena were very attached to each other, and I was devoted to both of them. It would make some sense to consolidate the contents of these containers so that I would have only one sewing supply to go to when I am working on a project. But I can’t do that because both the chests and the things that are in them are redolent with memories, and are emblematic of the women who owned them.

My mother’s sewing box is a round tin with “Barricini” scrolled on top. It is decorated with pot-bellied stoves, butter churns, and kettles all in black, gold and teal. The tin is a bit dented and discolored, but still pretty serviceable. A little research informed me that Barricini was a candy store in Brooklyn founded in 1931 and which ultimately distributed chocolates all over the United States. I have no idea when or how my mom got a tin full of fancy chocolates, but she must have recognized and valued the container’s sturdy quality as she transformed it into something useful once the candy was gone. Inside are little cardboard (reused jewelry) boxes labeled “safety pins,” “needles,” and “common pins” – all in her lovely handwriting; a box of old Dritz Taillors’ Chalk that cost 10¢; and wooden spools of thread. There is also a red cotton tomato pin cushion, old scissors, and a lone garter for an ancient girdle.

My aunt Lena’s sewing box is completely different. It is of dark wood – maybe mahogany –with pale inlays of lines, scrolls and oyster shells. At one time it had a key. It has some chips and missing corners, but remains romantically Victorian. The pale green satin on the inside top and bottom has mostly disintegrated. This box contains a messy hodge-podge. There is thread, but there are also knitting needles, crochet hooks, a pair of dice, and a tiny set of binoculars in a stiff leather case. There is a round, faded, gold satin box and matching pin cushion all decorated with little Chinese figures holding hands. Together, this collection presents a much more exotic picture compared to the contents of my mother’s recycled tin. It suggests that Lena didn’t sew much, but used the coffer for odds and ends that she didn’t know what to do with.

My own sewing storage is one of those bright yellow plastic tool chests with a strong black handle for carrying. The top of the lid lifts up and has little places where I keep bobbins, old hooks and eyes, and pairs of delicate scissors. These small spaces are where a carpenter might store nails and screws, but are where I keep gadgets to stitch with. Inside there is a black tray filled with threads of endless colors. Most of the spools are plastic. Under the tray there are seam bindings, zippers and the original instructions booklet for my circa 1950 “Singer Portable Electric Sewing Machine.” I also have an old cork and perforated metal stopper that fits into a ketchup bottle and which is used for dampening clothes before ironing. Now I use a plastic sprinkler or steam iron. I keep the ketchup-bottle sprinkler because it makes me smile.

My sewing box conveys something different from my mom and aunt. My collection indicates that at one time I was a slightly more serious sewer. I knew how to use my cherished Singer to hem skirts using lace binding and put zippers into dresses. I guess I tend to keep things for practical importance (the manual) and for whimsy (the sprinkler). My sewing box is very neat unlike the jumble in the other two containers. In fact, my sewing paraphernalia are among the most organized things in my house, but I’m not sure why.

When I hand-sew I tend to use my mother’s stuff. I like the idea of holding the things that she held and seeing her lovely script on the little boxes of pins and needles. I don’t use any of Lena’s items for sewing. They seem outdated and never quite fit with what I need to accomplish. But I like to look at the antique container and admire its mystery. When I use my sewing machine, I go to my tool box.

Having written all of this, it is clear to me why I have no desire to combine our things. First, it would mean getting rid of one or two containers. How could I possibly choose? Second, the assemblages are deeply representative of unique personalities. Combining them would imply, at least symbolically, that our distinctive characteristics and talents can be merged. No way! Finally, I am one of the few who is still alive to remember the strong bond between these two women. Keeping their storage separate from each other and from my own helps me celebrate our special distinctiveness whenever I pick up a needle to sew.

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About Marian

Marian Leah Knapp, Ph.D., wants to start a new conversation about “aging with intent.” Much of what is written about elders is from the point of view of physicians, psychiatrists, gerontologists, and adult children. In her roles as author, columnist, speaker and elder activist, Marian is reporting from the front lines.
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