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.
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.