IF you sew you no doubt have your favourite sewing tools. A go-to set of needles, perhaps. A pair of scissors that fits easily into your ...

IF you sew you no doubt have your favourite sewing tools. A go-to set of needles, perhaps. A pair of scissors that fits easily into your hand. A preference for long, glass-headed dressmaking pins over short stainless steel pins.

Over the years these favourites, if they are looked after, age and wear with clues to how the user handled them or stored them.

I know I was never allowed near my mother’s dressmaking scissors and she will tell you she was not allowed those of her mother. My mother’s button box, however, now that was something. It contained, to a child’s imagination, a treasure trove of talismans and trinkets. To run your hand through that old biscuit tin of plastic was a sensual thing. There was the whisper of plastic, wood, leather and metal together along with the feel of those light pearlescent discs sifting through your fingers offering up the glint of a single glass or iridescent shell button.

It was also the place to go to find an old thimble, or my gold christening bracelet. Pieces of broken jewellery would be saved into the tin and lie there waiting for a new life as embellishment on some new item of clothing or hand stitched haberdashery. Empty cotton reels, with the brand and colour lot of a to-be-bought-again thread would gather there along with old cards of clasps and clips, hooks, eyes, belt buckles and other accessories – each one of them a telling sign of the age in which the user sewed.

These tell-tale signs say what was made, what colours the maker preferred, how elaborate or fanciful her designs, even what schools her children attended or work her husband did. White collar shirt buttons are decidedly different from the buttons of a labourer’s shirts and vests.

My own collection of sewing notions bears the bowerbird finds from others functional collection of stowed items. A tin purchased for $5 at a car boot sale held a small 1950s basket – its lid worn and stretched from being repeatedly opened. Inside was a mass of mostly rubbish and a few of those telling gems. Atlas and Coates cotton reels – one with black cotton still wound on. Silk threads in purples and greens – used on a bridesmaid dress, I wonder. Two button hooks for shoes. Following a little internet research these date from the 1800s and are mostly likely for a man’s shoe. Along with needles and knots of thread the final pieces I salvaged were an Australian 2c coin and plastic knitting needle gauge – the latter the collection’s distinctly odd piece out.

What stories I have imagined for the owner of this assortment of items. And all for a fiver.

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  1. Wonderful tale. My mum was a sewer and I remember when I was very young coming across one of those arnotts biscuit tins and so disappointed to find sewing notions in there instead of biscuits! When I was older I was pretty excited when I received my own sewing box and passed on notions.

    1. Ooh, I hope that sewing box of notions has grown and tells a lovely story you'll be able to pass on one day.

  2. I wish I could sew, such a fantastic skill. Love stories like this.