At the Western Illinois Museum, the Artifact of the Month for February is a sewing bird.  This tool, which was used by seamstresses, clamps to a table while the decorative bird’s beak holds the fabric to be sewn. Before the invention of the sewing machine, clothing, sheets, and other household items were sewn by hand, and this handy little clamp was a convenient tool.

The sewing bird served as an “extra hand” and was useful whenever material needed to be held taut.  A thumbscrew attached the bird to a table and the lower body of the bird is stationary, while the upper body is hinged, and there is a spring in the tail. When the upper and lower tail ends are pinched together, the beak opens, allowing the edge of a fabric to be placed in it.   When the tail is released, the beak closes on the fabric, holding it securely while a sewer pulls it taut for stitching.

The sewing bird at the museum is approximately four inches long from the tip of its beak to the tip of its tail, and is made of brass.  It has a pincushion in front and a place for an emery ball on its back. This sewing bird is from the Eph Mercer store, once located in Vermont, Illinois.  The museum acquired a number of items when the store closed after Eph Mercer’s death in 1976. Filled with not only merchandise, but also his personal collection of widely assorted antiques, Eph’s country store was locally famous.

The sewing bird was also known as a sewing clamp, hemming clamp, or third hand.  Plain clamps to hold fabric were used beginning in the late 17th century.  Early in the 18th century in England, the designs of the clamps evolved beyond the purely utilitarian and sewing clamps became more elaborate and decorative. The clamps were made of brass, iron, steel, and painted wood. Sewing clamps were made in many varieties: birds, deer, dogs, fish, frogs, snakes, dolphins, cherubs and people. Some were multi featured and had additions such as an emery ball, spool or thimble holder, pincushions, winding reel for thread or yarn, netting hooks, rug braiders, thread cutters, small drawers, scissor sharpeners or other features to help with sewing related tasks.  In the United States, the first sewing birds were called “grippers,” and they did not become popular until the mid-19th century.

Through the years, as the designs for sewing birds changed and became ever more decorative, so also did the idea of the sewing bird change from being a purely practical sewing aid to a more precious, special, and sometimes romantic item for a seamstress. For some well-to-do women a highly decorated and elaborate sewing bird began to be considered a treasured status symbol.  As an illustration of wealth, it was an indication that the person had enough disposable income to afford and splurge on purchasing an expensive version of an ordinary sewing tool.  For other ladies, the sewing bird represented a romantic token. Young men would give a sewing bird to his intended bride months before the wedding, when she was occupied with numerous sewing projects, preparing her trousseau, and sewing items in preparation for her married life. The idea was that while she sewed using her sewing bird, the future bride would be reminded of her future husband. The little birds were regarded as a sign of affection and became established as a luxury wedding present from groom to bride.

Many women would have had either a simple or a decorative sewing bird in their sewing basket.  Plain ones were very common.   Sewing played an enormous part in women’s lives during the 18thand 19th centuries.  Most women spent a large amount of time sewing.  Even women of comfortable means sewed and having good sewing skills was considered part of a young lady’s education. All girls were given instruction in practical sewing skills and in fancy needlework and embroidery. Proficiency in sewing was considered a necessary, a required skill in household management.  Girls spent time on samplers and other examples of fine sewing skills and families displayed these pieces as demonstrations of the females’ talent. For every woman, the sewing bird would have been a device that helped her and made her work a little easier.

The first United States sewing bird patent was granted to Charles Waterman of Meriden, Connecticut, in 1853. Waterman’s bird clamp was by far the most popular manufactured in the United States and the type of sewing bird at the museum resembles the type called the “Waterman Bird,” named after the creator, Charles Waterman. The patent info is stamped into the edge of the bird’s wing.  The vast majority of factory-made American sewing birds have some form of patent information permanently cast or stamped into the piece.

Waterman advertised his sewing birds as helping seamstresses sit straight and avoid hunching over their work and getting stooped shoulders and a sore back.  An advertisement for the Waterman sewing bird showed two women on opposite sides of a table. The one without a sewing bird is bent over her work in an unhealthy posture, while the woman using a sewing bird is upright, showing the clamp’s “health preserving property.”

Sewing birds were sold in stores, mail-order catalogs and by itinerant peddlers, and there are surviving examples found all over the United States yet today. The sewing bird was so popular and such a part of everyday life that there was even a sewing bird character in a children’s book.   The Mary Frances sewing book or,Adventures among the Thimble People, published in 1913, featured a sewing bird as one of the main characters.   The book was also sometimes titled, Easy Steps in Sewing, for Big and Little Girls, orMary Frances Among the Thimble People.  In the book, a little girl with the name Mary Frances is taught to sew by characters called Sewing Bird and the Fairy Lady. The book included pull out patterns for doll clothing.   Jane Eayre Fryer wrote a series of books featuring Mary Frances that were designed to teach young girls basic domestic skills.

The Waterman sewing bird was produced into the 20th century and there were variations in the design, as well as painted and plated versions.  After the invention of the sewing machine, the need for sewing birds was diminished, but they were still manufactured as novelties. The Singer Sewing Machine Company produced a few as late as 1980. These original inexpensive sewing accessories from the past are now antique collectibles today. The little sewing bird can be remembered as a very popular sewing tool that is now little used today, and also as a romantic token of affection from another time.

The sewing bird was on display at the museum February 1 – February 28, 2014.

Article by Heather Munro