Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Is Your Pin Cushion Shaped Like a Tomato?

I've always used a simple Dritz tomato pin cushion, like the one above. In my opinion, that's simply what a pin cushion should look like. But recently, Jeff asked me why my pin cushion is shaped like a tomato. To me, that's kind of like asking why the sky is blue. But I decided to do a little research into the matter anyway.

I came across this explanation from a Threads article:
Why the tomato? According to folklore, placing a tomato on the mantle of a new home guaranteed prosperity and repelled evil spirits. If tomatoes were out of season, families improvised by using a round ball of red fabric filled with sand or sawdust. The good-luck symbol also served a practical purpose—a place to store pins.
Wow - your pin cushion performs the bonus task of repelling evil spirits! Neat. This seems plausible, I suppose, but it bothered me that the author didn't cite any sources. So, being the intrepid journalist that I am, I did a little more research on the old interwebs (not on any reputable sites, mind you), and here are a couple other explanations for the tomato shape.

This gets the award for the weirdest answer:
In many Renaissance households, people placed a tomato on their mantle as a way of containing evil in one evil object, thus helping to ensure prosperity for the family. But tomatoes eventually rot. So people resorted to stuffed models. And since the little cushions possessed a bit of voodoo magic, it held all the pins and needles in the house.
Ah, so Renaissance families could practice voodoo against evil tomatoes. Duh!

And here's an answer that actually sounds like it has historical basis, but then just sort of runs out of steam at the end:
During the 15th century, metal pins were very expensive, and thus were usually stored in fine cases. During the Tudor Era, however, it became a common practice to use fancy cushions. Later, during the Victorian Era, parlor rooms were all the rage, and the goal of the typical housewife was to stuff it full of opulent clutter. Pincushions began to come in fancy shapes, such as fans, dolls, shoes, fruits, and vegetables. These cushions were displayed on tables and hung from walls. In the 1800's they began to be mass-produced, and the tomato proved to be the easiest to assemble because of its simple design.

I give this answer a big thumbs-down. I mean, lots of objects have simple designs that are easy to mass-produce. Also, the Victorian Era WAS the 1800s, so I don't know if this explanation would withstand a good fact-checking.

In any case, I think it's probably best to continue to use a tomato-shaped pin cushion to avoid voodoo spells, bring prosperity to your mantle, and show off the opulent clutter in your parlor.

How about you? Do you dare defy the voodoo gods by using a pin cushion that is not (gasp!) shaped like a tomato?

P.S. If you're curious about the strawberry apendage on your tomato, I can tell you that it is an emery bag usesd to sharpen pins and needles, and all my sources agree on this. But . . . why is it a strawberry? I mean, who ever saw a strawberry growing out of a tomato? More research is obviously required!

70 comments:

  1. haha. I loved this post! :D I have always wondered why the tomato/strawberry combination. But obviously we may never know the deep reason behind this. lol. The tomato/evil spirits thing sounds most plausible though. I guess I'm jinxing myself by primarily using a magnetic pincushion! (As requested by the husband so my pins don't end up on the floor, to be stepped on. lol)

    ♥ Casey
    blog | elegantmusings.com

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  2. Yea. I have an actual voodoo doll as a pin cushion. I got it in New Orleans out of one of their shops, and told the Mambo what I was going to use it for, and she added a magnet to the body for me so I don't actually have to stick pins into it as well as a couple other charms.

    Of course, I sit and make screaming noises when I use it, so it tends to creep people out that a)it is a voodoo doll and b)I kill it with sound effects.

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  3. Oh no! I tossed my tomato when I made the pincushion caddy from AMH's Seams To Me!! Am I courting retribution from the evil tomato voodoo gods??? I don't care - I love my caddy too much.

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  4. Great post! I can vouch for the victorian pincushions as I work in an antiques shop one day a month. One of the pin cushions is shaped like a duck and costs £300. ish. I put a picture here: http://marmaladekiss.blogspot.com/2009/11/shopping-anyone.html
    xx

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  5. Funny! I love funny historic details. I've heard of the tomato pincushion but I've never actually seen one in person. Maybe the variety of pincushions is greater in Europe, and perhaps there is a monopoly of tomato pincushions only in the US. Neither my mum nor my grandmother nor myself own a tomato pincushion. I just use an old, super-super strong magnet, thats shaped like a handle. This way it's easier to get the little things off the floor especially when they are covered in fabric scraps and thread. My friend who comes here sewing sometimes gets quite freaked out by the magent plus needles sticking out in all directions thing and I think she's convinced it's full of evil spirits as she refuses to use it. So maybe I should get a tomato...

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  6. I don’t have a pin cushion.

    I should get one. I tend to use the arm of the sofa which is not good. I have seen the tomato pin cushions but never used one.

    My mum has a miniature dress form pin cushion which is very cute but not very practical. Topples over if you’re to rough with it.

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  7. I do ue a tomato pincushion, and apparantly, it serves a couple of uses. I need it to ward off evil sewing spirits for sure. And I do stick it with pins and sometimes in a manner that is like voo-doo! There--take THAT--you evil pincushion!

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  8. My first project in high school sewing class was a pin cushion. It's an army green square with orange flower trim as stripes. I am 42 and still use it. I've always longed for a tomato though.
    My sewing teacher said a pin cushion stuffed with saw dust was to prevent your pins from rusting.
    Be well.

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  9. I have one of those! It is because when I first started sewing, I did not have anything to fill a pin cushion with, so I bought one. And most stores in the US only sell this one. I would have preferred something cuter, and less red, but I haven't come across anything like that that is still functional - most cute ones are just that - cute!

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  10. I am extraordinarily attached to my pincushion, which is not a tomato or even a cushion. It is a magnet shaped into an elephant statue. It wards off evil spirits just fine.

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  11. My pins are in a can with a tight lid due to curious and not very bright kittens. But my mom has my grandmother's pincushion, which is a pink ball with little dolls holding hands all the way around to hold it upright. I've seen them called "Small World" pincushions sometimes.

    Melodie

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  12. Not only do I use a tomato pincushion, I use my mom's old tomato pincushion. It's pretty beat up, partly from all the times I rearranged the pins in patterns as a child. (This drove her nuts.)

    I'm highly skeptical of all those stories, though. One thing to remember: no European would have even seen a tomato before about 1494, since it's a New World crop, and for a long time tomatoes were thought to be poisonous (because they're related to deadly nightshade). That would make an odd good-luck charm, it seems to me

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  13. Great post! I will never underestimate my unassuming little tomato pincushion again. :)

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  14. If the evil voodoo tomatoes are for prosperity, should I then consider my little pincushion surrounded by Chinese children to be a symbol of fertility? If so, I may be in trouble. My little children pincushion is cute and all, but that's a LOT of little stuffed Chinese children

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  15. I have a tomato cushion that was my grandmother's. I have never been that excited about it because I didn't eat tomatoes until recently but have held on to it because it was my grandmother's. I use her sewing machine (actually her mother's) so I have held on to all the sewing 'stuff.' I think I like my tomato even more now.

    Can't wait to hear any other 'facts' you uncover. I'll be looking myself.

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  16. my grandmother also had the little dolls around the main part of the pincushion style...she got it in Japan when my grandfather was stationed there in like, the 50's.

    I can't really recall what my mom used - maybe just a plastic box?

    I use a plastic & magnet one. I poached it from my mom, and when she was here to visit recently, she told me that it was also my grandmother's, and was from Japan.

    weirdness.

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  17. My mom used a tomato-shaped pincushion all through my childhood. I never gave a thought to it till now!

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  18. You got me curious. Here;s a little history on the 'mater as we say in Texas.
    http://homecooking.about.com/od/foodhistory/a/tomatohistory.htm

    I didn't see anything else about the the tomatoberry or strawmato except that it probably began around the Victorian Era which you already mentioned.

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  19. Wow, how fun that you looked into this! Stephanie, I have to say I was a little alarmed when you said you had never even seen a tomato pincushion -- they're quite ubiquitous here. My tomato pincushion is old and beat-up, and I don't even remember when I got it. Of course I always make the mistake of sticking my hand sewing needles in there, which the tomato (or the evil spirits?) eat voraciously. I'm always squeezing the pincushion to force them out.

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  20. Michelle is right: I did some archaeological work on the tomato (among other plants) back when I worked in that field (no pun intended), and the tomato was universally considered poisonous until at least the 1700s, when there's a story of a statesman eating one on the courthouse steps to prove he wouldn't die! So while it's nigh on impossible that anyone in the Old World would have seen a tomato prior to the return from the New World (where they originate), between 1500 and 1800 they would have been common and considered evil and deadly. They were often grown ornamentally as a sign of the cosmopolitan nature of the woman of the house!

    I'm reading a fascinating book right now on the history of the pin, too, so am loving this post--may I link back to you on my blog? I talk about pins and the tomato/strawberry combo every month in my beginning sewing classes, and know my students would like to learn more!

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  21. I think the tomato/strawberry combo is because they are both red. My guess is that the strawberry-shape is to visually distinguish it from the tomato-shape.

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  22. Now why haven't I ever asked this question. It's just always been a tomato, and I never gave it any thought otherwise. You are always bringing up subjects that make me think and ponder. This post is very funny. It made me chuckle. People were so superstitious long ago that I don't doubt the evil spirits story.

    I still have my first sewing box that I now use to hold buttons and my first tomato pin cushion that my mom gave me over 30 years ago.

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  23. No my pin cushion isn't shaped like a tomato .... but I wish it was. For my birthday one of the things I asked my Mum to buy me was a tomato shaped pin cushion, like she used to have when I was a child, but she couldn't find one anywhere. You've got me all fired up to track one down now!

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  24. Must be an anglo-thing. I have never even heard og a tomato shaped pin cushion (I am from Denmark). My cushion is shaped like a... cushion, a little pillow.

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  25. I have a safety pin stuck through my 'strawberry' (I always thought of it as another little tomato dangling from the bigger one, probably because the idea of tomatos and strawberries together is just too surreal!). This makes it easy to find whenever I need to thread elastic band or a tie through something. And I'd never thought to wonder 'why a tomato'? Mine is full of needles which never made it back into their slipcase and have now got lost in its innards... I have wondered however why the dangly stawberry was full of sand... To sharpen the needles of course! Fascinating post.

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  26. Pin cushions shaped like a tomato...I always thought my tomatoes looked like pin cushions!

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  27. What a fun post. Tomato/strawberry is a strange combination. As Casey said at the top, we probably will never really know. But it sure is fun to speculate!! My mom still has hers from her mom. One day it will be mine. (*Rubs hands together with glee*)

    I know my local WalMart sells them for anyone that is looking. Virtually any place that sells fabric will have some also. I either leave my pins in the clear plastic lidded containers they come in or I have made a few pincushions. One is in the shape of a little house that I use for my quilting needles. The other is a little tiny one made out of a plastic soda bottle cap that I saw a tutorial for somewhere on the internets. I love that one because it is very portable.

    I have a pattern for a mini dress form pincushion that ONE DAY I will make. Really, I will. I hope. : )

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  28. Like Stephanie I don't think I have ever seen a tomato pin cushion either - maybe someone should start shipping them to Europe so we can benefit from their special powers too! I have several soft ones and I'm always stepping on them. I've learned to scream inwardly from that.

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  29. Yep, got a tomato...wouldn't have it any other way. I didn't know what the "strawberry" was for, thanks for the info!

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  30. Hahaha so funny! My hubby just asked me a few days ago what that "tomato thingie" was. I couldn't explain to him either why pincushions are shaped like tomatoes. Interesting reasons!

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  31. My mother (a Texan, born and bred) insists that the tomato is actually a chili pepper. I can kind of see it for the strawberry appendage, but the cushion itself is just so ... round. Yet she refuses to hear otherwise.

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  32. Awesome post! I would have never guessed that was why they are tomato shaped!

    I have a traditional tomato shaped one that travels with me in my kit back and forth between home and work, but my pincushion that stays at home is a miniature dressform shaped one, which is on a stand. It's easier for me and my daughter to share.

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  33. Mine is magnetic. I just throw my pins in its general direction and they stick. It's much less work for me as I like to use loads of pins.

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  34. Ahaaa, I'm wondering to what sort of folklore your sources are referring to. I have the tomato, too, and well, as this fruit was discovered by Christopher Colombus, I'm not really sure it had spread in Europe by Renaissance, so... am I using an american folkloric item without even knowing??? yet, tomato is now part of traditional cook in Provence, so things come and go!

    I remember a sewing shop selling pineapple ones, but they didn't seem very successful as they were on super promotion: bad voodoo vibes? And to me, the little pendant is not a strawberry but a tiny, hot chili pepper...

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  35. I use a magnet D:

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  36. That tomato pin cushion is probably american, because I am another european gal who has never heard of that before! I use a rectangulat cushion, shaped like a mini-pillow, inherited from my grandmother-in-law. I think she made it herself.

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  37. Ok, so I went looking for a pin cushion at the store, and all I could find was a red, or purple, tomato. I thought it was ugly...? And the wee little strawberry at the end? I thought that was weight to stop your tomato from toppling over and rolling onto the floor along with your pins.

    How wrong I was.

    But I still crave pretty pin cushions. I recently purchased some gorgeous linen and crochet ones on Etsy that are just so beautiful! Beauty banishes evil, right?

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  38. Tomatoes were considered poisonous and that's why they would have been thought to contain poisons. They didn't ward them off, they attracted them: all the evil or poison in the air would go to the tomato, and not the people. The theory would have made sense within a humor theory of medicine and disease if it's true.

    And the later European renaissance lasted to the 16th or 17th century by some accounts, so plenty of time for knowledge of the tomato to have spread to Europe.

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  39. So, please tell my why my tomato pin cushions don't keep the evil voodoo guys away from my sewing room? If that pin cushion worked, I would never make a mistake while sewing. So there!!

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  40. My pincushion looks like a cupcake. Before that all my pins were just in a box. I have never had a tomato pincushion at all!!

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  41. I've been a dressmaker for more than a decade, but I didn't feel like a "proper" needlewoman until I treated myself to a tomato pincushion last year. Thanks for a fascinating post!

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  42. Tomato pincushions aren't 'the thing' in Australia either. Used to use a cushion shaped one until I bought this lovely one http://www.littlefishcreations.com/node/1129 from Karen Ruane a few months ago :-)

    Cheers
    Claire

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  43. I had never seen a tomato pin cushion either until I started searching for the 'perfect' one. I don't think they are a 'traditional' shape here in Oz.

    My mum'w was the most ugly thing. Shaped like a hat. I think she made it in school.

    Mine is something I made to my own design. I really wanted one for my wrist but couldn't find anything. So I made one using a square and turning it into a triangle. It was easy and it's my most favourite sewing tool. I'm lost without it. See it here. http://www.burdastyle.com/projects/wrist-pin-cushion

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  44. I have a pincushion from my grandma that is a ring of sumo babies holding hands around a basketball??? I never understood what that was about or where she got it. I have it out more for it's weird cuteness and actually use a small plastic hinged box for my pins. I noticed that the pins were starting to get dull, and saw that there was a strawberry-like thing for that. I went to our local Hancock's for one, but the only ones you could get were attached to this hideous freakin' tomato. I refuse to buy it on principal, pins be damned. Wonder if I can make one myself? Anybody out there know how to make an emery-thing for pins?

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  45. I have several, all which are different shapes. My favourite is the big square quilted one I made when I was about 11. It's funny how much I associate with pin cushions, in fact even though I didn't inherit from my Grandmother's estate the only thing I would have liked was her pin cushion but I think my aunt took it :(

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  46. I can't believe how many of your have tomato pin cushions!!! I had never even seen one til just now! I just use a stuffed circle thing I made. It's not so good when it's on my lap cos the pins poke through to the other side :) Maybe I will make a better one one of these days.

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  47. You know, I was just pondering this very question the other day. Thanks for the sleuthing!

    I don't use a pincushion at all...*gasp*...as the wife of a potter, there are always a million seconds floating around the studio, so I use a small ceramic bowl to hold my pins. Probably foolish, because there's nothing to keep them from flying all over the place if I nudge the bowl, but so far so good...

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  48. Too funny!! My pincushion is one of the magnetic things - I LOVE it!! I have a pincushion that my grandmother made. I keep needles for hand sewing and pins I don't like as well in that. I also have a pincushion I bought at the World's Fair in 1982 down in Knoxville. It has little Asian stuffed figures sitting around the round part in the middle. I guess I got it in the Asian exhibit. I was only 11!

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  49. Oh yes, I defy! I use a roll of wool felt strips inall colors as my pin cushion. I could sure use a strawberry for sharpening, but i love my wool felt rainbow.

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  50. As others have already noted, the tomato pin cushion doesn't exist here in Australia and I can also add that they aren't known in New Zealand! I used to have a little apple-in-a-basket pin cushion but am currently using a freebie shaped like a turtle which is as disturbing as it sounds! In fact, I think I'll get another one ...

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  51. Now you have all made me want a tomato shaped pin cushion, so even though I live in Australia I am on the hunt-first stop ebay!!!

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  52. Yes, it can't have been a tomato in the Renaissance but also it is very unlikely that a pincushion would have been red then, Why? Because true red dyes were extremely hard to find or make and were very expensive. That is one of the interesting aspects of the history of textiles and the trade between India and the Ottoman Empire and the Silk Road, etc, etc. All fascinating stuff.....
    So of course at some point giving a bride a red pincushion would have been a very generous gift. And the strawberry is supposed to be full of emery so that when you poke your needle into it and pull it out, it sharpens it a little every time. As needles were so expensive, you didn't just throw them away when they got blunt. You kept them sharp and shiny!
    Hatty

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  53. I've never actually found I've needed a pincushion- until reading this post! Even though I live in Australia, the ol' tomato pincushion has always been slightly familiar, although I've never known anyone that used (or owned) one. But all the allegory surrounding it compelled me to feel the need to possess one!

    So, yesterday I ventured to my local haberdashery megastore, and eventually found a teeny tomato pincushion hidden amongst all the liberty-print lovehearts and whatnot. BUT, most bizarrely, I found a "collectible" tin of pins with a PICTURE of a tomato pincushion on it. So, the tomato image must have some sort of folkloric power and/ or meaning?

    Now, let's see whether I ever actually use the thing.

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  54. I own a tomato pincushion. But I've never stuck a pin in it. In fact, it's still where it was when I got it--in the compartment of the Singer sewing kit that my sweet sister-in-law gave me for my birthday. (It has lots and lots of thread in it...)

    My pin storage of choice is an old baby food container. Baby food, Gerber brand at least, comes in square plastic containers with snap on lids. I washed out a few after Evie was finished with them and started storing things like pins and safety pins in them. Best thing in the world. Now when I drop a pin box, nothing comes out!

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  55. I am an Australian and my Mother in law gave me a sewing kit 2 years ago and it came with a tomato pin cushion (before that I had a home made pillow shaped one). We both thought it was a bit weird and wondered what the thing hanging from it was. I cant wait to tell her. They sell them at the big sewing shops here. But I had never seen one before I opened my sewing kit.

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  56. I actually somewhat buy the 2nd story, as if you think about the red fruit (tomato) in the Biblical context, it wouldn't be so odd during an era of symbolism to think of tomatoes as representing evil...which eventually translated to tomatoes BEING evil.

    Gertie, your blog is my favorite! I'm so happy to have found it!

    xx

    Becky

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  57. Of the two pincushions I've bought, both have been the traditional tomato. After reading the comments, I remembered my mom has a satin pincushion with the Chinese kids around it. I'm not sure if she bought it here in America or brought it over from Asia. Pincushions in general are so cute!

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  58. Becky, I don't know whether it has to do with your theory as to the origins of the tomato pincushion, but your theory that tomato has something to do with the biblical fruit must be correct - in Czech, tomatoes are called "rajská jablíčka" (though nowadays usually "rajčata" for short), which means "apples of paradise". Although I've always felt the connection was more positive than negative, such as them coming from warmer climates or something like that. But that could be just my subjective feeling.

    That being said, I don't think the tomato pincushion has any sort of tradition here. I've never seen it here; I think I first encountered it on BurdaStyle and, honestly, didn't like it at all. I don't like the colours!
    I'm storing my pins in jars and boxes; the only pincushion in our household is a shoulder pad ;) my mum didn't like in one of her sweaters. So she cut it out and now it serves as a storage for needles used to darn socks.

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  59. My pin cushion is a tiny little ice cream dish with a purple felt cushion! all my little pins look like sprinkles! my sister made it for me, but growing up my mother had the tomato.

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  60. Aah, what a coincidence! I just stumbled on your post about this pin cushion - and I received that exact same one for Christmas this year!

    I have to say, I thought the strawberry was a little chilli pepper.

    It's nice to know that the design has a bit of history! Thanks for sharing :)

    Sadie x

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  61. I can honestly say that I have never seen a strawberry growing out of a tomato but somewhere in the blur of my past, maybe my nan had a tomato pin cushion. I have never really been a pin cushion person but maybe one day I will try one. Meanwhile thank you for your research. Maybe tomato and strwberry pincushions just aren't what us Aussies are into for our pin storage.

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  62. I just replaced my "little people dancing around the mound" cushion with this version two weeks ago!

    My son calls the little bit a chili pepper and I can't convince him otherwise.

    As to the folklore, hard to say, but I think the possibility of blood red tomatoes and sharp instruments has significance. Or maybe that's only at my house...

    Love reading your blog.

    Jennifer

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  63. What a great discussion! I think I may have a hybrid pincushion. It's got the tiny little people around the outside, but inside the ball is red and kind of resembles a tomato as well. I think I may have the harmony and unity of the small world style with the evil spirit protection of the tomato to boot. I feel lucky now.

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  64. Very beautiful..I feel like using this for my dinner....LOL

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  65. I too always assumed that it was a chile pepper, not a strawberry. A chile pepper makes more sence food-wise.

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  66. I'd always thought that it was a Persimmon. The thought kind of tied it in to chinese embroidery for me.

    I tend to keep my pins in altoids tins and in small bowls or in the arms of my sofa.

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  67. The strawberry thing attached to the tomato pincushion goes inside a thimble so you can always find your thimble for hand sewing. At least that is where my grandmother always kept her thimble.

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  68. I use two pin cushions, the smaller of the two being a cupcake shaped pin cushion which is the first thing I ever made a few months ago and the larger being a 10 inch polka dot cushion a made and has since become my fave as i can chuck it out of the way when need be :)

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  69. My nana always used a large square magnetic tube. It was huge and heavy, and we always assumed it was something rare and exotic. Several of the descendants were "negotiating" it's ownership after nana's death when my uncle walked past and said that he'd given it to her and we could all have one, it was a discarded radio component from his work, and he could get as many as we wanted. It didn't seem so special after that, and we all lost interest. Nana never owned a computerized machine. Now I don't think I'd want such a strong magnet near mine.
    I made an elasticated wristband with a Velcro patch, a matching strap for my machine, and a Velcro backed pad that can swap between them depending where I need the pins.

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  70. lol now i wonder the strawberry meaning but oh well i may never know. i do know that 1 day my grandaughter will get my sewing box an it contains mine an my moms tomatoe an straweberry pincushions. i miss my mom im glad she chose ta make them a family tradition. thnx 4 posting this it took me down memory lane

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Thanks for your comments; I read each and every one! xo Gertie

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