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ONE History of Sewing Kits: Hand stitching as therapy

Updated: Jan 5

In the 18th and 19th centuries travel sewing kits were essential for both men and women to carry at all times. The term "housewife" was used in print for the first time in 1749 to refer to a portable sewing kit. Later these kits were also referred to as a “hussif”, a “hussive”, a “huswif”, or even a “hussy”.

During the 18th century, a hussif was often created using remnants of cotton, wool, or linen and finished with twill tape for the edging. Wealthier individuals may have opted for more luxurious fabrics like damask, chintz, brocade, and silk. The kits were designed with pockets, a pin cushion, and a special place for sewing needles and were often embroidered and personalized.

In the 1700s mothers, wives, and sweethearts would create a special hussif as a farewell gift to send with their loved ones off to war. These were necessary supplies for soldiers so they could keep their uniforms in good condition. Women would often show off their needlework by stitching special messages and embroidering the kit with love.

Photo: US Civil War Union soldier mending uniform. June 1861 Library of Congress 1S02987

During the world wars housewife sewing kits became standard issue for every soldier in the US, Canada, the UK, France, Australia, and New Zealand. The kits contained a variety of buttons, needles, thread, thimble, small scissors (or snips), wax to waterproof the thread, swatches of cloth for patches, and thicker thread for darning socks. Soldiers used the kits for everything from mending their clothing, to stitching their name into their belongings, sewing on badges, ranks, or awards, and even sewing up a wound if needed. 

Throughout World War I and II, women’s sewing collectives and regional branches of the Red Cross assembled sewing kits to be included in care packages sent to American soldiers. The Red Cross provided the pattern and contents of the kits. As reported by a newspaper, ‘hussif groups’ crafted nearly 50,000 kits between 1940 and 1944.

Many soldiers turned to needlework as a form of recreation during downtime. After the First World War, embroidery became a popular occupational therapy for wounded soldiers. Hospitals in England, France, Australia, and New Zealand all offered embroidery therapy for soldiers as a means of restoring fine motor skills after injuries and as a meditative therapy to recover from trauma. This type of therapy, also known as “fancy work,” included embroidery, beadwork, and woodwork as “lap crafts” that wounded soldiers could do from bed. The Red Cross provided templates for beginners to learn how to embroider patriotic messages. Examples of these pieces of handwork can be found in museums around the world today. One of the most notable is the altar cloth at St. Paul’s Cathedral which was created by 133 soldiers from different countries.

"The act of sewing would add focus and purpose to their recovery, while improving their hand co-ordination and allaying boredom and melancholy." Stephen Barnard, From the Hands of Heroes

The photos below show a wide variety of styles from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Today we are seeing a modern resurgence of the hussif. But let’s be clear, a “housewife” is no longer an appropriate term for a sewing kit. In fact, in 2019 the UK Ministry of Defense was accused of sexism for continuing to use the term ‘housewife’ to refer to sewing kits. In response, they acknowledged that the term is outdated and no longer has a place in the armed forces. Although sewing kits are still available to soldiers, they are no longer a standard issue.

Today we can look to the past for inspiration and create our own hand-stitched sewing kits in the hussif style. 

Are you looking for a fresh and meaningful embroidery project to bring to your 4th grade handwork students? Join us for the February 2024 online international handwork conference! This 3 day conference will focus on 4th grade color and design work and will include a special embroidered sewing kit in the hussif style as one of the many projects we will do together.

Hyland House Museum Hussif, Guilford, Connecticut

Standard WWII Army Issue Hussif 

Red Cross WWII Hussif

Cross-stitch hussif 1880’s

Quilted and embroidered hussif 1856

1870-1890 embroidered hussif

19th century husswife

Join us for the February conference to hear more and learn how to make your own embroidered sewing kit in the hussif style!

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