Three sewing boxes sit close to one another in my closet. Each one is an artifact from distinct individuals — my mother, my aunt Lena, and me. My mom and Lena were very attached to each other, and I was devoted to both of them. It would make some sense to consolidate the contents of these containers so that I would have only one sewing supply to go to when I am working on a project. But I can’t seem to do that.
My mother’s sewing box is a round tin with “Barricini” scrolled on top. It is decorated with pot-bellied stoves, butter churns, and kettles all in black, gold, and teal. The tin is a bit dented and discolored, but still pretty serviceable. A little research informed me that Barricini was a candy store in Brooklyn founded in 1931 and which ultimately distributed chocolates all over the United States. I have no idea when or how my mom got a tin full of fancy chocolates, but she must have recognized and valued the container’s sturdy quality as she transformed it into something useful once the candy was gone. Inside are little cardboard (reused jewelry) boxes labeled “safety pins,” “needles,” and “common pins” – all in her lovely handwriting.
My aunt Lena’s sewing box is completely different. It is of dark wood with pale inlays of lines, scrolls, and oyster shells. At one time it had a key. It has some chips and missing corners, but remains romantically Victorian. The pale green satin on the inside has mostly disintegrated. This box contains a messy hodge-podge. There is thread, but there are also knitting needles, crochet hooks, a pair of dice, and a tiny set of binoculars in a stiff leather case. It suggests that Lena didn’t sew much, but used the coffer for odds and ends that she didn’t know what to do with.
My own sewing storage is one of those bright yellow plastic tool chests with a strong black handle. The top of the lid lifts up and has compartments where I keep bobbins, old hooks and eyes, and pairs of delicate scissors. These small spaces are where a carpenter might store nails and screws, but are where I keep gadgets to stitch with. Inside there is a black tray filled with spools of endless colors.
My sewing box conveys something different from my mom and aunt. My collection indicates that at one time I was a somewhat serious sewer. I knew how to use my cherished Featherweight Singer to hem skirts and put zippers into dresses. My sewing box is very neat unlike the jumble in the other two containers.
When I hand-sew I tend to use my mother’s stuff. I like the idea of holding the things that she held. I don’t use any of Lena’s items for sewing. They never quite fit with what I need to accomplish. But I like to look at the antique container and admire its mystery. When I use my sewing machine, I go to my yellow tool box.
Now that I have written this down, I see why I have no desire to combine our things. First, it would mean getting rid of one or two containers. How could I possibly choose? Second, the assemblages are deeply representative of unique personalities. Combining them would imply, at least symbolically, that our distinctive characteristics and talents can be merged. No way! Finally, I am the only one still alive to know the strong bond between these two women and me with them. Keeping our items separated helps me remember and celebrate our special distinctiveness whenever I sit down to sew.