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An Antique Sewing Bird and the Mary Frances Sewing Book

My Sewing Bird

I don't have a lot of antique sewing tools, but this little guy keeps me company in my sewing room, and I thought you might be interested in knowing a little about him. Sewing Birds were popular in the 1800's when sewing by hand was such a large part of a woman's life. The bird which clamped to the table, was a "third hand" that held the fabric taught in its mouth as the seamstress hemmed the fabric. Plain clamps to hold the fabric started to be used in the late 1600's and by the 17oo's became more decorative. According to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, the birds didn't become popular in the United States until the mid 1800's when Charles Waterman of Meridan, Connecticut patented a "feathered bird upon the wing, bearing a burden upon its back." The burden was an emery ball and a pincushion sat below the beak. Waterman advertised the birds as having "health preserving properties" because they allowed the seamstress to sit in a more upright position while she worked. The birds became very common and most women had one as a necessary tool in their sewing basket. In 1913, Jane Eayre Fryer published the Mary Frances Sewing Book which taught little girls how to hand sew by creating an entire wardrobe for their doll.

Image from Mary Frances Sewing Book

The main character who teaches Mary Frances is her grandmother's sewing bird, who turns into a fairy when Mary closes her eyes. The book is an interesting snapshot into the life and times of a young girl from another era. The entire book is available online here. For the 100th Anniversary Edition the patterns were updated to fit 18 inch dolls such as the American Girl Doll.

Sewing Bird from the Western Illinois Museum

Some of the sewing birds were quite fancy and according to the Western Illinois Museum (which owns the sewing bird pictured above), became a status symbol for those who had the wealth to purchase an expensive version of an ordinary tool. The little birds were also a symbol of affection during Victorian times and became a gift often given by the groom to his future bride prior to their wedding. The Waterman birds were by far the most popular sewing birds manufactured in the United States and the birds were made well into the early 20th century. Reproductions were made in Japan during the 1950s through 1980s. The Waterman birds all bear a patent mark stamped on their wings. which is how you can tell that your sewing bird is a real antique and not a reproduction.

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