My mother’s traveling sewing kit is part of a centuries-old tradition of on-the-spot mending. Charles Bazalgette, whose book, Prinny’s Taylor, chronicles his ancestor Louis Bazalgette, tailor to King George IV for 32 years, writes that Louis issued “a striped silk [sewing kit] filled with colored silks, thread, needles, and thimble for the pages.” It makes sense that those tending to the royal frocks would want to have a sewing kit with them at all times to make emergency repairs should they suddenly discover a missing button or a frayed hem.
Of course, remaking a dress to suit the wearer instead of remaking the wearer to suit the dress is a skill that must be learned. And it requires an understanding of garment construction. “In making over a garment the home seamstress was limited in the amount, shape, condition, and type of fabric with which she had to work,” Sarah A. Gordon writes in her book, Make It Yourself: Home Sewing, Gender and Culture 1890-1930. “One had to pick apart seams, press the pieces, and figure out how to combine odd shapes and different fabrics.”
Like these turn-of-the-last-century ladies, my mother saw all off-the-rack clothing as lumps of clay to be molded and shaped with new buttons, narrower shoulders, or shorter hemlines. She tailored the clothes she had into the clothes she wanted to have. And she did it all by hand. Dresses were reimagined into blouses, worn-out jeans became shorts or skirts, and in one particularly impressive renovation, my aunt’s dowdy Persian lamb overcoat became a chic bolero jacket.
Today, if I buy a dress that doesn’t fit right, I return it. When clothes show signs of wear, they get sent off to Goodwill or relegated to at-home loungewear. It's not because I don't have the tools to do proper mending, either. My mother helped me assemble my own sewing kit to take to college. We roamed up and down the aisles at the local fabric store picking up supplies: dressmaking scissors, a collection of needles of different sizes, a thimble, a seam ripper, tiny gold safety pins, straight pins, a pincushion shaped like an overripe strawberry, a small ruler, tailor’s chalk in case I had to hem something, and five spools of thread in navy, black, white, clear nylon, and red.
This creation of a personalized sewing kit for a relative leaving home is another tradition, dating back to the Napoleonic Wars. The portable sewing kit was originally called a hussif and was first mentioned in print in 1749 to refer to a small cloth case holding a selection of needles, thread, pins, and maybe a pair of tiny scissors. In an interesting etymological development that reverberates to this day, the word hussif evolved into “housewife.”
A sewing kit assembled by a loved one shows that they care—and it transports that care over a physical distance. Soldiers received sewing kits as gifts from wives, mothers, daughters, and girlfriends, usually made from scraps of silk and fabric remnants, sometimes embroidered with hearts or initials. A hussif owned by a soldier in the American Civil War might have the word “Dad” embroidered haltingly on the inside. An exhibit at the National Army Museum in London marking the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo displayed a sewing kit owned by Captain Newton Chambers, who served with the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards. In the time before safety pins, soldiers used the items in their kits not only to mend uniforms, but also to sew on buttons, bars of rank, and awards. There were also many improvised uses: Needles were used to remove splinters and the needle and thread to sew up wounds on the battlefield.