The Difference between Dull and Bright

“The child took her sewing and sat beside aunt Jane in the kitchen while aunt Miranda had the post of observation at the sitting-room window.  Sometimes they would work on the side porch where the clematis and woodbine shaded them from the hot sun.  To Rebecca the lengths of brown gingham were interminable.  She made hard work of sewing, broke the thread, dropped her thimble into the syringa bushes, pricked her finger, wiped the perspiration from her forehead, could not match the checks, puckered the seams.  She polished her needles to nothing, pushing them in and out of the emery strawberry, but they always squeaked.  Still aunt Jane’s patience held good, and some small measure of skill was creeping into Rebecca’s fingers, fingers that held pencil, paint brush, and pen so cleverly and were so clumsy with the dainty little needle.”

- Kate Douglas Wiggin, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, 1903

In the 19th century a lady’s work-basket filled with sewing implements, threads for mending, darning, sewing, and fancywork was a fixture in most homes.  Sometimes it was a reed basket, but if the lady of the house was a person of means, it could be an elaborately fitted wooden box lined in silk to hold tools made of ivory or sterling, with a place of honor in the parlor. A further illustration of the importance of sewing during this time, is the existence of several U S. patents that were filed containing cleverly designed spool holders with an emery as an appurtenance, which were clearly meant to be both useful and ornamental.

Novels of the period typically record the ritualistic importance of the time of day when the mistress of the house would settle down in a chair with her work-basket at her side to do a bit of sewing or fancywork with other females of the household.  Housekeeping manuals, which contained trenchant instructions for different types of cleaning, what constituted a properly stocked linen closet and so forth, also expounded on what a “properly fitted up” lady’s work-basket contained.  One of my favorites is Catherine Esther Beecher’s, “A Treatise on Domestic Economy, for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School”, originally published in 1841.  Catherine is the sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the more famous author of  “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, and an interesting and influential person in her own right particularly when it came to educating young women.   

An emery-bag was one of the staple sewing implements in every work-basket.  If you are an embroiderer you already know that continuous use of a needle makes the plating less smooth.  This creates a slight drag with every stitch, whether you are stitching in linen, doing canvas work or simply basting fabric. Today a lot of people either do not pay attention to this, or simply discard the needle and use another one.

Turkish Emery is one of the products of the Access Commodities’ new Accoutrements line, stock number ACC 1019 .  Our emery is a fine premium grade that looks like black sand.   As you can ascertain, it is packaged in a glass bottle, and we include a cotton twill liner so you don’t have to hunt around for something appropriate.   A properly made emery should have a liner made of a stoutly woven cotton or silk, to keep the emery from leaking out.  After you have made your emery into a firmly sewn shape, to polish a needle simply push the needle in and out of the emery.

I have noticed over the years that the directions of some strawberry emery kits tell the purchaser to fill their finished creation with sand!  If you were to use sand, you would find it dulls the needle’s finish even more.   Other emeries that you purchase at chain stores, and which are mass produced do not contain emery at all, or if they do it is an inferior grade and does not clean or polish your needle.  Plus, their polyester cover leaks.  Another issue is the current practice by some manufacturers of promoting the strawberry emery as a pincushion.  No needle or even pins should be left stuck indefinitely in emery.  This further weakens the cover of the emery and makes the finish of the needle uneven.  If you want to “park” your pins or needles, I would gently suggest you put them in a needle book or pincushion.

Featured today is a new kit from Access Commodities, the Rococo Strawberry Emery, stock number KIT 5888.  It contains all the elements, including the directions, silk thread, liner, needle, sumptuous red cover fabric, metal strawberry cap and Turkish Emery to complete the project.  This was designed for Access Commodities by Roberta Chase.  Miss Bobbi and I use emeries and have them in our work-baskets.  So, the design objective was to create something both beautiful and useful, with a respectful nod to the past. 

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