Large Iroquois Pincushion
By Dolores Elliott
One of the most common forms of Iroquois pincushions is the large rectangular pincushion that often features a beaded bird on a field of purple velvet. A frame of beaded leaves surrounds the purple center. I estimate that at least 8,000 of these pincushions were made between 1870 and 1910.
The pieces pictured are typical purple pillow pincushions. They exhibit one or more birds and floral motif surrounded by a frame of leaves. The leaves alternate clear beads and colored beads. Furthermore, often the leaves made of blue beads are across from each other on the frame as are the red, green, and yellow leaves across from each other. Sometimes, the four colors are included in the center design also.
The pincushions range in size from about 5 x 7 inches to about 10.5 x 11 inches, with most measuring about 8.5 x 10 inches. They have an edging of clear beads around the entire outside of the pincushion. Sometimes there are loops at the four corners. Often, these edging beads are missing because they have been broken off during the last century. A fully stuffed pincushion may be as tall as 4 inches, although most do not stand that tall. Many of these pincushions weigh more than a pound and a half. Almost as common as the stuffed pincushions in collections are the flat tops. Some have no backing and were obviously the top of a pincushion that has been dismantled. But some still have the backing, indicating that the stuffing has been removed or the piece was never stuffed to begin with. Some may have been made to serve as mats.
The most common form of stuffing is sawdust, but other types of stuffing have been observed. Among the alternative stuffings are cotton and paper. Some pincushions may be stuffed with sweetgrass. The good, woodsy smell added to their appeal to Victorian tourist souvenirs.
The purple velvet on the top comes in various shades of purple with, the most common color a luscious magenta. Some of the purples have faded to a lavender, while some still are a deep rich royal purple. The velvet often shows the selvedge edge, showing along the edge demonstrating that every part of the velvet was used. A few of these are covered with red, blue, or green velvet, but these colors are very rare. A course cream-colored fabric covers the top of the pincushion under the frame of leaves. The back of the pincushion is usually a crisp, polished cotton in one of several colors. The most common polished cotton colors are pink, tan, red and blue. Often the back exhibits a water stain with no definitive cause. Did the pincushion sit on a washstand or did the sawdust leak out moisture? We are still deliberating the cause.
We are also deliberating the place where this type of beadwork was made. It was most likely made by Mohawk bead workers, but where they were living, we do not know. They probably lived on one of the reserves located near Montreal, Quebec.
As mentioned before, these pincushions (probably used for hat pins) are relatively common. There are usually three or four on eBay at all times. Although some optimistic sellers impressed by their beauty, no doubt, put a Buy It Now price of $500 or so, in reality they usually sell for $100 or less. The ones that show several birds or baskets or elaborate vines tend to sell for more than those with just one bird and a couple of simple flowers. The condition of the purple velvet is also a factor in their worth. One form that usually sells for several hundred dollars is the one with two American flags incorporated into the design with the bird. These are obviously made for the U.S. market even though they were probably made in Canada. European coat of arms and horses have also been observed beaded on these pincushions.
This form evolved into the 20th century using different designs, fabrics, and beads into the 1930s but continuing with the rectangular shape and the four colors.
In addition to those pictured here, you can see several examples of this kind of pincushion on web site of the Iroquois Studies Association at www.otsiningo.com.
WorthPoint: Get the Most from Your Antiques & Collectibles