I’ve recently returned from a Pin Cushion Heart making course at Heartspace Studios in Bristol, after seeing some of these objects dating back to the Victorian era for the first time this year. Two of which were in Tate Britain’s exhibition on Folk Art, which I reviewed for Trebuchet Magazine.
I find pin cushion hearts both attractive with their heavily beaded patterning and slightly grotesque, mainly because they have often ‘weathered’ over time and become stained or dirty. Making one myself seemed a good way to understand the significance and possible roles of these double-edged objects, and so to appreciate them more.
The cushions are stuffed with either sawdust or sand, which, if not machine-made, involves quite a lot of force and patience. I added lavender to my sawdust, which could be smelt every time I pushed a pin into the cushion during the decorating stage. It takes a lot of sawdust to make the cushion firm and full, and because it compacts, it takes a lot more than you think you need. The sawdust is stuffed through a long slit down the centre front of the heart. When the heart is sufficiently sturdy and can withstand the pressure of pins (a floppy cushion will result in the pins falling out), it can be sewn up with diagonal stitches that crosshatch each other. This ends up looking like a harrowing scar down the heart’s middle. So although the hearts feel strong, there is a sense of fragility and even violence at their centre.
Over the top of the stuffed heart, top fabrics are added separately to both the back and front. The back is normally sewn on first. Once completed, there is no more hand sewing required. However, many Victorian pin heart cushions were made using machine-made hearts. This was popular with tailors working on ships. The pin cushion hearts in Tate Britain’s Folk Art exhibition were each made by sailors.
Victorian sailors and soldiers often made pin cushion hearts. They were considered to be objects that could ward off evil and neutralise threatening forces harnessed by witches. Indeed, in general, pinned objects have a history within Europe of being talismanic and protective: The pin penetrates and traps. Such a power could have resulted from the fact that pins were precious in the Victorian period, and were used before the invention of buttons to hold things together.
Paper signs or ribbons with inscribed sayings were popular embellishments for the decorative centerpiece of the hearts. Many also contained images of ships. Janet Haigh, founder of Heartspace Studios, is certain that these sayings and signs were in circulation elsewhere within popular culture. It would be interesting to find out more about this.
Pin cushion hearts were originally birth and Christening presents, and later also wedding gifts. “Welcome, sweet babe”, was a common saying to be beaded onto the cushions. I chose not to add an inscription to my pin heart cushion, focusing instead on colourful patterns. Even without a saying, they can still feel like personal objects, intimately made for someone, or with someone in mind.
No book is yet solely devoted to pin cushion hearts and their history. Information about them is scattered between books, and Janet has done a beautifully illustrated blog post about them. She might write a book about pin cushion hearts one day.