Note: This article is Part 2 in our series of 5 articles on Sewing Notions and Tools. To read the other articles in the series click here.

Last week, I wrote about some of the items that make up a sewer’s workbox.  This week we explore the workbox itself and all of the forms it has taken in the past from the châtelaine to the hussif.

A collection of sterling chantelaines sold for $650 in 2017. Châtelaine translated from the French means “Lady of the Castle.”  The origins of the word châtelaine come from the keyring that would have hung from the belt of the Lady of the Castle.

Châtelaine translated from the French means “Lady of the Castle.”  The origins of the word come from the keyring that would have hung from the belt of the Lady of the Castle.  The châtelaine clipped to the lady’s belt and through hooks and chains would hold any number of items the lady would need.  Accessories that hung from the waist to hold tools have been found as early as the first century and may have been employed even earlier.  In considering the times and how precious tools were, and how expensive to replace, it makes sense that one would wear these items on their person.

The word “châtelaine” was not used to describe waist-hung appendages until the 19th century. The word was introduced to describe the now popular waist-hung fashion accessory by the English publication The World of Fashion in 1928.  The Regency era of high waisted dresses did not lend itself to the châtelaine, but the accessory made its come back in the Victorian era with its full skirts and belted waists.  Early in the Victorian era, châtelaines were made of steel and very utilitarian.  Later they would be increasingly more decorated to the point of being more for fashion than for use.  The popularity and diversity of this accessory can be charted through artwork and photographs of the period.

A châtelaine would hold a number of things to assist a lady in daily life but was also filled with sewing notions.  The ornamental hanger and chain were sometimes called chatelan, and the hanging implements were referred to as chatelets.  These chatelets could include a thimble housed in a thimble holder, a pincushion, a pin safe, tape measurer, stiletto, a small penknife, a scissor in a sheath, a small tablet of paper and pencil.  Other items not related to sewing that could be affixed to the chatelaine include a small mesh coin purse, a mirror, a glove or shoe hook, and most important for the day, a small vial of perfume or aromatic vinegars to combat the scents of the close quarters and hygiene of the day.  As these items could be replaced and interchanged, the arrangement might depend on the occasion.

Other means for carrying sewing items get used interchangeably (but perhaps not correctly).  Etui, nécessaires, and Ladies Companions are all different containers around the same theme.

This shagreen etui, along with an alabaster and a tortoiseshell etui, sold for over $3000 in 2006. An etui is a small compact case and could be used for carrying sewing tools.

An etui is a small compact case that could be used for carrying sewing tools.  It was generally not worn, and the cases were frequently covered in shagreen (shark skin).  The etui also evolved to be a more decorative item, functioning more like jewelry.

A nécessaire, also frequently covered in shagreen, was a small box containing other small boxes, but a lady’s nécessaire, like an etui, might not only hold sewing materials.  The interesting piece shown in the photo below is described as a gilt bronze necessaire and resembles more of an etui but comes with a chatelaine loop.  Clearly, all lines are blurred.

A beautiful gilt bronze nécessaire sold for over $1600 in 2013. A nécessaire was a small box containing other small boxes and might hold things other than sewing items.

Unlike the etui or the nécessaire, a Lady’s Companion was strictly for sewing.  The photo below shows a beautiful example of a compact case that is actually labeled “Lady’s Companion.”  

This Lady’s Companion sold for $310 in 2016. It is actually labeled “Lady’s Companion.”

Fitted needlework boxes, common at the end of the 18th Century, would be carried with a young woman while visiting.  Needlework was an appropriate pastime for a young lady as well as a social activity.  It is said that anything that could be embellished with needlework during this era, was. These boxes were passed down through generations.  Fitted needlework boxes provide a challenge to the collector.  If tools were broken during use, the item was usually replaced with a new tool that didn’t match the originals.  If having a complete set is important – best to find a family who has no inclination for sewing in their genes.  Shown below is an exceedingly beautiful, and expensive, example of a fitted sewing box:

This gorgeous sewing box sold for almost $7000 in 2014.

For the lady who didn’t travel with her sewing, she might be lucky enough to have a worktable.  Worktables appear in France around 1750 made by cabinet makers of Louis XV.  A variety of these types of tables were made in France for letter writing, games, or dressing tables, but all were referred to as “ladies tables,” which may cause some confusion for the collector.

This Victorian sewing table sold for a little over $300 in 2012.

The humblest of all needlework containers is a hussif or husseif derived from “housewife.”  This was a small roll-up often given to men leaving for a long period of time, particularly going off to war.  Shown here are the items held in a WWII soldiers kit: 

A WWII British soldier’s small kit sold for $139.19 in 2014.

This small kit is the forerunner of those plastic mending kits provided by hotels everywhere.

Megan Mahn Miller is an auctioneer and appraiser specializing in Rock ‘n Roll and Hollywood memorabilia, and other hard-to-value items.  Her company, Mahn Miller Collective, Inc. can assist you with solving your personal property problems. Visit for more information.

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