As needleworkers, we know that maintaining our supplies assists us in creating higher-quality projects. For example, storing and maintaining needles is very important in extending their usefulness, and needle books are a creative and clever way to do so. In addition, a household benefits from the convenience of multiple needle books tucked in mending baskets and sewing boxes and with embroidery projects.
Fabric-covered needle books delight textile enthusiasts and needleworkers, alike. Not only are they beautiful and functional, but they also offer us a glimpse into the variety of historical fabrics.
Needle books were made for fundraising fairs, personal use, or as sentimental gifts. Materials were easily found at home, and the construction did not take a large amount of time.
Fabric-covered needle books consist of front and back covers made from firm paperboard covered in decorative fabric. Sandwiched between these covers are fabric pages, made of wool or flannel, which were sewn in and used to hold needles. The interior fabric pages often have decoratively cut or embroidered edges. Pages vary in color from neutral cream to vibrantly colorful. It is also common to find books with at least three progressively sized interior pages. Some needleworkers then sort their needles by size or pin type on the pages.
The material used for the covers is diverse and includes silk, wool, velvet, and cotton. The fabrics can be remnants of clothing and evoke memories for the maker of events, people, or places and serve as a memento put to practical use. Some needleworkers embellish their covers with decorative stitches, such as feather and buttonhole stitches in matching or contrasting colors.
The spine, or joining of the covers, is done in a variety of ways, including folding the front and back in half, making a fabric or ribbon hinge, or tying the covers together with bows. The bows also make a decorative element when the needle book is in the sewing basket.
Collectors can find needle books from the eighteenth century up through modern-day examples. Styles vary from primitive wool to fine hand-painted silk and brocade. My personal favorites include a variety of handstitching techniques or those with personal notes enclosed. One example has an enclosed note referencing the needle but not the needle book, “Olden time dull point worsted needle.” A bent, and well used, needle is used as a pin holding the note to the red wool needle page.
Today, needle-book exchanges and patterns are readily available—proof of their enduring functionality and popularity as gifts. I have a few needle books that were gifts that I use daily. Each time I pick one up, it reminds me of a dear friend who also spent some time thinking of me.
Dawn Cook Ronningen is the author of Antique American Needlework Tools (Schiffer, 2018). She lives in Minnesota, where she enjoys her extensive collection of antique textiles, embroidery, and needlework tools.