Pretty Pincushions, Embroidered by British Soldiers in WWI and Sent To Their Sweethearts Back Home

The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Sept. 11 2013 12:10 PM

Pretty Pincushions, Embroidered by British Soldiers in WWI and Sent To Their Sweethearts Back Home

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During WWI and WWII, as one of many home-front efforts to support soldiers, American civilians knitted items to be sent to the front. (Some still do!) In a charming reversal, these pincushions were made by British soldiers during WWI and sent home to wives, sweethearts, and mothers.

Nancy Mambi, librarian at the Textile Center in Minneapolis, Minn., which mounted an exhibit featuring sweetheart pincushions last year, says that the tradition began in the nineteenth century with Queen Victoria. The Queen was an amateur practitioner of textile arts, who thought that soldiers might find quilting or needlepoint a great distraction while far from home.

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Some British soldiers stationed in India made quilts, and sailors in the Navy often extended their sail-making efforts to recreational needlework [PDF]. In WWI, soldiers often took up needlepoint as a way to pass the time while recuperating from war wounds, or used it as a form of occupational therapy.

These cushions are decorated with beads, sequins, bits of mirror, felt, and pre-printed panels memorializing soldiers’ regiments. The Imperial War Museum, which has another example of a sweetheart pincushion on its website, says that some such pillows were made out of commercially sold kits, while Mambi reports that other examples were sewn using feed sacks and scrounged thread.  

Pincushions 1

Left: A WWI heart shaped sweetheart pin cushion decorated with beads, sequins and embroidered "A Merry Christmas To You" panel, height 19cm (7.48 in). Right: A WWI heart shaped sweetheart pin cushion decorated with beads, sequins and a central mirrored panel, height 20cm (7.87 in). Images courtesy of Adam Partridge Auctioneers & Valuers, which sold a lot of sweetheart cushions in 2010.

SoldierPincushions1

Left: A WWI regimental heart shaped sweetheart pin cushion decorated with beads, sequins, needlework and an applied Army Veterinary Corps badge, height 17cm (6.69 in). Right: A WWI regimental heart shaped sweetheart pin cushion decorated with beads, sequins and applied Grenadier Guards badge. Images courtesy of Adam Partridge Auctioneers & Valuers, which sold a lot of sweetheart cushions in 2010.

SoldierPincushions3

Left: A WWI rectangular sweetheart pin cushion decorated with beads, sequins and applied Royal Air Force badge, 15 x 17cm (5.9 in x 6.69 in). Right: A WWI heart shaped sweetheart pin cushion decorated with beads, inscribed "Think of Me", height 17cm (6.69 in). Images courtesy of Adam Partridge Auctioneers & Valuers, which sold a lot of sweetheart cushions in 2010.

Rebecca Onion, who runs Slate’s history blog The Vault, is a writer and academic living in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter.

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