Originally Published August 1, 2009
Amongst my grandparents things were items they inherited from their ancestors; tin types, samplers, dishes, furniture- and two little sewing birds. What the heck is a sewing bird, you ask? Why this is:
Sewing clamps were created to provide a third hand to the person sewing – it held the fabric tightly so the sewer could pull the fabric taut while hemming or seaming. It helped the sewer create a more consistent and smoother seam or hem. This was particularly helpful, since the sewing machine was still an item of the future, and even when it did come into use, it was not a common object in all households. During that time, the average housewife was still making all of the clothing, linens, etc for the household.
Early sewing clamps, like the later sewing clamps, relied on a screw driven mechanism to attach it to the edge of the table closet to where the sewer was working. The fabric clamp was ether screw driven to hold the fabric, or had a simple spring mechanism to hold the fabric in place.
Sewing birds, a variety of a sewing clamp, became popular in the early 1800s; older versions, much larger, of sewing clamps have been found to exist back into the 16th and 17thcenturies, made mainly of wood. One of the more unique of .these I’ve seen also had a post attached, with pegs for spools or skeins of thread. In many early cases, “sewing clamp” was a misnomer, as the fabric item had to be sewn or pinned to the clamp; the only clamping part was to the table.
Later sewing clamps were made of bone, ivory, wood or metal; most of the metal ones were of the spring clamp variety. While sewing birds became increasingly popular, the figurine on top could be of any animal or no animal at all. The type pictured here may have once been painted or gold plated; some were just polished iron or later, steel. Most sewing birds or clamps also had a pincushion somewhere on the clamp, easily accessible to the sewer, and a few even had an emery ball (used to sharpen needles and pins) on the bird’s back.
The “sewing bird” of this variety was patented February 15, 1853, by Charles Waterman, of Meridian, Connecticut, but he had already been quite successfully selling them prior to applying for a patent, as is evidenced by an advertisement in the Hartford Times dated June 5, 1852.
Finding these as working antiques can sometimes be hard – the spring is often broken on them. Often, you will find them in the condition I have here, with the fabric from the pincushion deteriorating, and the emery ball missing. Reproductions of the most basic style of bird can be purchased online, offered by several different companies who specialize in historic reproductions.
Using a sewing bird can be tricky at first, trying to get used to that third hand effect, but you will find it rapidly quite useful, especially when trying to sew on a delicate material, like lawn, or a slippery one, like silk satin.
Examples of sewing birds and clamps, as well as a brief article about them from the National Museum of American History:
http://www.mnhs.org/library/about/LibraryDisplay01/02tools.html This shows the same type of sewing bird as pictured above, only in newer condition. You can see the emery ball on the back, and how the pin cushion would have looked.
http://www.eldreds.com/sales/detail.php?itemID=115488 Wooden sewing clamps
http://www.eldreds.com/sales/detail.php?itemID=115487 Ivory sewing clamps
As always when discussing antiques, I am not promoting any of the links above, merely listing them because they give excellent photographic examples of the items in question.