Do It Yourself History: Making A Housewife

Originally Published September 13, 2013

When I say making a housewife, I’m not talking about running out and marrying someone to clean the house, cook the meals and keep your bed warm. While those are all nice things, the type of housewife I’m talking about is the historic sewing kit carried by military men and women even today.

A housewife, or Hussif, was carried by soldiers in wartime, as well as servants of the well to do. A useful tool, a housewife could help you even today. This basic housewife is 4 1/2 inches by 2 inches in diameter.
A Standard Housewife

Lisa Keipp – photographer and creator of this housewife

Now the first time the term “housewife” was used in print – according to the OED – as applies to a sewing kit is in 1749. However, evidence has been found to show that similar small sewing kits have been carried for centuries, especially by servants of the nobility. The term “hussif” is often identified with these sewing kits.

In the U.S. and Colorado, the housewife really comes to light during times of war. However, likely the first fur traders, miners and homesteaders to the area also carried these items and knew how to use them.

These hussifs or housewives come in a variety of forms – some look like small wallets, some are rolled up, but one thing they all have in common are a flap to keep the sewing items inside.

Most commonly found in a housewife are two basic things – needles and strong thread. In the most basic of kits, you will find just one color of thread. In more complex kits, there may be several colors of thread, in order to match the uniform and other items that might need repair. Some have the thread in hanks, others on a thread winder, still others on a small wooden spool.

A variety of needles of different sizes is also in place. A more complex set may also include a number of straight pins to hold the fabric in place while you sew. Some kits might have even held safety pins. Needles may be just stuck into a fabric (usually flannel) patch, or they could be inside a case of their own.

Other kits may have included buttons, curved needles, sewing snips, scraps of fabric to make patches and repairs.

These kits also varied in the material they were made of – some were made of fancy household fabric scraps left over from clothes making and may have had fancy details and embellishments added by loving wives, mothers, sisters, even children. Others were often of a utilitarian nature, often distributed by the military, and were made of plain cloth of a heavy duty nature, meant to survive wear and tear. Modern housewives – now most often called sewing kits – distributed by the military are often made of plastic and hold snips, thread in a variety of uniform colors, buttons, needles, safety pins and and needle threader.

Making a housewife for yourself or others is easy. The basic one I made in the picture is of heavier muslin doubled over, requiring a piece of fabric 14 inches long and 8 1/2 inches wide. The fabric is doubled and sewn, then turned inside out and sewn again to add strength. The fabric is then folded in thirds; the first third is sewn at the sides and then in pockets of the right width to hold the fabric, snips, needle case and spool or two of thread. The top is used as the flap and the entire kit is rolled up and tied with a ribbon.

Now, this kit can be modified. My own personal housewife that I carried as an historical interpreter is longer and wider – it has a wool flannel panel for needles; two needle cases – one for pins, one for needles; a larger pocket for multiple thread spools; spaces for bone crochet hooks;a pocket for scissors (in their own fabric case); and a small wooden measuring spoon. You can add or subtract your own supplies and pockets as you need.

Now to the why should you have a housewife -why, for the same reasons your ancestors did, and the same reason our military men and women do now – to repair things you need. Out in the field – on military campaigns, camping, survivalist situation – you will have limited access to new clothes. Repairing your clothing and other gear could well mean the difference between frostbite, sunburn, and other environmental conditions you could avoid with properly maintained clothes.

A good kit and basic sewing skills could, quite literally, save your life.

Please do check out these other sites that have other examples of historic and modern housewives.

The Civil War Housewife

Housewife for my Civil War Soldier

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