The “Huswife” – a colonial travel sewing kit

this carefully embroidered “housewife” is part of the Hyland House collection

The Non-Human Housewife

The 18th and 19th century “housewife” (also known as “hussif”)was not a human at all, but rather a compact sewing kit which contained pockets that held sewing tools and accoutrements. It was small in size and used by both men and women of all classes.

The term “hussif” (abbreviation for housewife) first appeared in print in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1749 suggesting that it had already been in common use. “Hussif” was not the only term used. Its other known names were: “huswif” (or “huswife”), “hussive” and “housewife”. The more commonly known term “hussif” appears to have possibly originated as a dialect of shire of Lancaster, England. When it was actually first crafted for use is unknown.

In the 18th century “hussif” (or “huswife”) sewing kit was usually made from fabric scraps of linen, wool and cotton and edged in twill tape. Aristocrats may have also used such fabrics as: moire, damask, chintz, muslin, brocade and silk. The kit is made of two strips of fabric – one constructed on top of another – a sturdy base cloth, with approximate dimensions anywhere from 3 to 8 inches wide by 12 to 24 inches long. A series of pockets were then stitched across its width. Stored inside these pockets one could find any of the following: snips or 17th century scissors, sewing needles, pins, linen thread, thread winders (made of wood, horn, mother of pearl or ivory), a thimble, a cake of beeswax, buttons, a cloth measuring tape, even a pincushion, in some. It folded on itself and tied close, all to fit neatly in one’s pocket and kept on one’s person at all times.

During the 18th and 19th century sailors and soldiers alike could easily carry a “huswife” along with their gear. Soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War brought their own sewing kits. It was common that these kits were made by their loved ones and given as a farewell gift. Mothers, wives, sister and sweethearts would personalize the sewing kits with embroidery for their menfolk to take into war.

By the mid 19th century these sewing kits became standard army issue. They were a rolled-up Khaki pouch containing thread, needles, thimble, buttons, and scissors. Before the invention of safety pins for a quick fix, these sewing kits came in handy for mending uniforms, sewing on buttons, ranks and awards. The sewing needles could be used to remove splinters and, at times, sew up wounds.

During WWI and WWII women’s sewing groups made and included these sewing kits in care packages, making them a popular item among soldiers. Some soldiers even took up needlework as a recreation. Embroidery became therapeutic for the wounded soldiers. The “huswife”became a standard army issue of the British Military to their soldiers up until the 1960’s.

Today, the revival of the “huswife”has emerged using a variety of fabrics and modern embellishments as one’s creativity suits them and their own needs. It can be used for a variety of needs beyond a just a sewing kit. For instance, it can be utilized as a knitting or crochet kit, changing its dimensions accordingly. The creative ideas for its use are up to you. You might want to make your own 21st century “huswife”. Basic directions can be found on our activities website here.

This plain “housewife” with attached pincushion is part of the Hyland House Collection