My mom had one, my grandma had one, and even my great grandma had one. A pincushion in the shape of a tomato seemed only natural to me, so I wasn’t at all surprised to find one in the little sewing box my mother gave me when I was a young girl. Still, I often wondered why, of all the shapes a pincushion could take, was the tomato the classic shape for pincushions?
Long, long ago, before machines that could mass produce pins and needles were invented, pins and needles were very expensive and hence, very valuable. As treasured household items, pins and needles were used with great care and often stored in elaborately fashioned needle cases to keep them safe. During the Middle Ages, pincushions – more whimsically referred to as pin pillows or pin poppets- first came into use as a way to showcase one’s collection of pins and needles. By the early 1700s pin cushions had become a popular piece of home décor were being made from delicately embroidered fine fabrics mounted on ornate stands. During the Victorian Era however, machines were developed that made pins and needles inexpensive to produce. As pins and needles became more commonplace, collections were removed from their pedestals and relegated to sewing baskets where they were handy if not admired.
Although Victorian Era was known for its lavishness, it was during this time that a simple tomato displaced all the ornate pincushions as the classic design. According to tradition, a fresh tomato had the power to ward off evil spirits and during the Victorian Era, it became the custom for neighbors to place a fresh tomato on the mantle of a new family’s home to bring prosperity to the new homeowners. Since tomatoes weren’t always readily available, the good-luck symbol was frequently fashioned from fabric stuffed with wool or sawdust instead. Eventually, the tomatoes found their way into ladies sewing baskets as they turned out to be the ideal thing for storing needles. Not only were they a handy size and shape, but the wool and sawdust stuffing helped prevent the pins and needles from rusting.While collections of pins and needles were no longer set on display, a lady of the Victorian Era proudly displayed beautiful collections of antique pincushions, but the but the humble tomato was always the crown jewel of her collection.
I have been playing around with a simple tomato pincushion pattern for my beginning sewing class, leave a comment below to be entered in a drawing to win one of three of these delightful little notions!
I’ve always wondered why the pincushions were tomatoes with a strawberry! I always learn so much from your newsletters 🙂 thank you so much!
I too grew up w/tomato pincushions, but never knew the story of how they came to be, so really enjoyed reading this article. Thanks so much for sharing it!
what an interesting piece on the history of the tomato pin cushion. what grade wool do you recommend? fine or course?
That would be a wonderful project for a girl to give sewing Mom for Christmas. Mom will treasure it!
Love this peek into history!
Cool bit of history! I always remember tomato pincushion (especially with the strawberry) in my mom’s and grandma’s sewing things, but never knew why it was always a tomato. I had no idea it started our as a good luck symbol.
I’ve had a tomato pincushion in my sewing box since I was six! I remember because my great aunt taught me to sew and my very first project was an elastic waisted skirt. She said she could let me machine hem it but hand hemming looked nicer, so she let me choose. I chose to hand hem, and her reward was my first sewing box–complete with a brand new tomato pincushion. Thanks for sparking this wonderful memory of my fantastic sewing mentor!
Thank you for researching the history of this common sewing pincushion!
I loved the history of the pincushion. I have a small collection including several tomatoes! My favorites are the battenburg lace pincushions that I made with my lace teacher from Belgium.
We are quite fortunate to have an abundance of sewing tools and notions!
Thank you for this lovely narrative of how we got tomato pincushions. I’d always wondered how they came to be.
I always wondered why a pin cushion was a tomato. Thanks for sharing this information.
I love all the historical articles that you write about sewing. Thank you so much for expanding our knowledge.
What a wonderful story I had no idea the history Was so interesting
Great Story — very informative!
Very interesting article. I have been asked this question several times by my young sewing students, so nice to have the answer now.
I have a carved ivory needle case from my mother’s collection. And of course, I have a tomato. I used a Sharpie and wrote the different needle sizes I use (9-18) at the top of each segment of the tomato. After I use a needle, it gets stored in the tomato. The ones with the least use at the top, and the ones with more use at the bottom. When I have to sew velcro, I always use the needles from the bottom.
Melange hand embroidered a fine needle case. I am so envious of her needlework skills.
Please enter my email address in this contest.
I remember those and I still use them, a memory from Grandma, Mom and now me!
I like the story of the tomato pin cushion. I never knew why the tomato pin cushion came about.
When I see a tomato I immediately think of summer and the traditional tomato sandwich. When I was growing up, the tomato was a blessing in more ways than one. Sometime all we had was a loaf of bread, mayo, and tomatoes. I think the folks in the Victorian Era chose correctly; because the tomato is not only nourishing, beautiful on display, and a compliment to most any food dish, it has a nice shape that can be mimicked by a pin cushion!
Thank you for the history of the tomato pincushion. I didn’t know the history behind it. I’ve been told about leaving bread and salt at a friend’s new home, but never a tomato!
That is fascinating. I never knew there was a reason for the tomato shaped pincushion, just that it seems to be the most popular shape. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and also thank you for the chance to win.
My first pincushion was tomato-shaped as well. But I have to place my pins in a closed box now because one of my cats keeps pulling them out of the cushion and tries to eat them!
I doubt I’m eligible to win a drawing again so soon, but am hoping that you will be releasing the pattern for sale. One of the things I’ve wanted to always make was a pin cushion. A simple tomato one would be a great place to start.
i love this iconic piece of sewing history. It seems they’ve always been around although I know they are fairly recent tools. Well, recent when one considers how long sewing has been around. Love reading this newsletter and keep up the wonderful work.
How interesting….I do love pincushions. =)
So interesting! I had no idea there was a significance to the tomato. Thanks for the history lesson!
Thank you for that wonderful bit of trivia I never knew! I’ll share it with my sewing buddies.
I use my tomato to keep my sewing needles close by when using multiple sizes and typesbefore ..since we sew with so many different fabrics we often need to change needles. before its use is over. I mark each section with the needle I am using place that in that section marked then switch to maybe a top stitch needle. When finished with that place it in another section marked and get previos needle back on machine. I do have three tomatoe since I may use many different needlres in project. I do wish they would go back to placing some wool batting in them. es and types. I do like to put twin needles back in their own case.
Thank you for the information. I still use a tomato pin cushion. I have often wondered how the shape was determined! It sits there on the sewing table always at the ready and you tend to overlook it’s apperance because of it’s function. Now, when my handy helper catches my eye, I will smile and know it’s story! Of course it never hurts that it’s red!
I can’t remember if my mom had a tomato shaped one or not. She doesn’t now but not sure of way back when.
Thanks you for the history of the tomato pincushion – I never gave the origin any thought before. I have learned so much from you. Would love one of these for my granddaughter!
Thank you for this interesting bit of history, Shari. I treasure the three tomatoes that I have. One was my mother-in-law’s, one was my mother’s, and the third is the one my mother gave me as a child when I was learning to sew. The older pincushions did not have the added strawberry, but mine does. I see others have commented here about having a strawberry attached. Do you know when this practice started and why?
These are darling!