Monday, 2 May 2016

The Military Housewife

The pocket sewing kit originated in the middle of the 18th century. Most soldiers and sailors included a hussif in their gear, especially when on campaign, often a gift from their mother, sister, sweetheart or wife.

The term "housewife" was used in print for the first time, in 1749, to refer to a sewing kit but housewife was not the only term used. They were also known as huswife, hussive, or, most commonly, hussif, which appears to be the contraction of the word "housewife". By the beginning of the Regency, hussif was the term most often used to refer to these small pocket sewing kits by nearly everyone, though pronunciation of the word would vary from region to region across Britain.

Hussifs made for men tended to be constructed of very sturdy fabrics, usually linen throughout, as linen would stand up better to heavy usage than cottons or silks.

Few men would care to be seen using a hussif covered with flowers or other feminine motifs and colours but if their hussif was a gift from a needlewoman in their life, they might find their initials or a monogram embroidered on the inside of the rounded flap.
Amercian Civil War sewing kit belonged to Capt John Babcock
Hussifs for soldiers tended to be smaller than a woman might make for herself. Inside would be found a selection of replacement buttons, for both the soldier’s uniforms and his civilian clothes, a packet of needles, a paper of pins, usually a thimble, and a notched length of wood or cardboard with a selection of threads wrapped around it in the notched sections. A small pair of scissors might also be included, though this was less common, as many soldiers carried a pocket knife which would serve the purpose of cutting threads. All of these items would be placed in the pockets of the hussif, then it would be rolled up, tied shut and slipped into the soldier’s pocket or his haversack.

A kit was used by Private Marcus Daniels during the American Civil War. The kit rolls closed around a cylindrical pin cushion containing a tinned iron thimble with a brass rim. The interior of the kit has three wool flaps of sewing needles and two fabric patches of safety pins
Soldiers did not only sew to mend their clothes and equipment. Needlecraft was promoted by the Army as a worthwhile pastime to keep soldiers away from trouble during their hours of free time when confined to camp or barracks. It was also encouraged as an activity to help with the recovery of injured soldiers. The many wonderful examples of needlecraft made by soldiers are a testament to their skill and creativity.

A housewife that belonged to Captain Charles Augustus Murray Littler, probably the last Australian to leave Anzac Cove, from the Jack Mason Memorial Museum collection
Very few senior officers would carry their own hussif, unless it had been made by someone very dear to them. They would expect their batman to use his own to keep them properly turned out.

Armies and navies from Britain to Australia to North America issued hussifs as part of the standard kit to their serving troops, at least up to the Korean War era. The British Army continued to do so well into the 1960s.


This housewife belonged to Captain Newton Chambers who was killed at the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815. Captain Chambers served with the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards and was aide-de-camp to Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton, commander of 5th Infantry Division, who was also killed in the battle.

While most early housewives were handmade from scraps of material that soldiers would have at hand, this one is made of silk. It contains pastel-coloured silk threads, five buttons and a small pincushion in a card tied with a pink ribbon. From its contents and his beautifully embroidered name, it can be assumed that it was given to Chambers by someone very close to him.

This housewife was made by Drummer Yeates of the 88th (Connaught Rangers) Regiment of Foot. He was awarded a prize for it at a military workshop exhibition in 1867. Many soldiers who took on needlecraft as a hobby became very accomplished. They took great pride in their work, which was often shown in military or industrial exhibitions and displays.

This is a beautiful example of embroidery and beadwork that incorporates what was dear to Drummer Yeates: the motifs of Queen and country in the crown and Union flag at the top; the regimental insignia of the Irish harp and battle honours, and a message of nostalgia for home.

This housewife belonged to Arthur Edward Cumming who was awarded the Victoria Cross for valour while in command of the 12th Frontier Force Regiment in Malaya in 1942.

Cumming received the award for effecting the safe withdrawal of a battalion and the Brigade’s Headquarters which had come under attack from a strong Japanese force. He led a small counter-attacking party which took heavy losses and was himself bayonetted twice in the stomach. In spite of his wounds, he continued to collect isolated detachments of soldiers in his carrier for over an hour. Receiving two further wounds he lost consciousness, but refused to be evacuated until he and his driver were the only survivors left in the area


This sewing kit belonged to Aircraftsman Myer Goldstein who served in a balloon company in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). Myer was one of 2,500 Jews who served in the RFC during World War I.

41,500 Jews served in the British armed forces during the war and 2,000 died serving their country. The middle-class settled Jewish community supported the war effort and this patriotism was also shared by many of the children of immigrants. Jewish businesses supplied army uniforms and women took on vital war work.

During the First World War the typical sewing kit carried by Canadian soldiers in the First World War included needles, thimble, buttons for Battle Dress and shirts, thread (both thin for badges and thick for darning socks, gloves, and other woolen items), and beeswax (to help waterproof the thread).

The kit was made of khaki cloth with sewn in pockets and was closed by rolling it up and securing it with two cloth ties.

The C-broad-arrow acceptance mark is a reminder that much personal kit was not replaced by later patterns; instead older patterns were issued until old stocks were exhausted. It is not unlikely to expect that First World War era housewive were issued in the Second World War, and beyond. In cases where outdated kit was not a danger to the soldier's life, the older patterns remained on issue until worn out.

The Canadian solider's housewife changed little during the first half of the 20th Century. Some sewing kits during the Second World War were actually produced by German prisoners living in Canada.
Canadian Issued Sewing Kit


A khaki handkerchief, along with another example of the sewing kit (this view shows the cloth tapes). The needles are inserted into a white rag, and the thread is kept on cardboard formers. The shaving kit is marked "Gilette" and has a stainless steel razor rather than a brass one as in the example above.

A smaller, single pocket version, also existed. Khaki housewives continued to be produced and issued long after the Second World War.

The standard Canadian Forces "sewing kit" by the 1990s (no longer called a "housewife") was in green material (cotton, above, and afterwards in nylon, with pockets inside and a piece of felt to which needles could be attacked.

The kit above is secured by tie tapes and dates from the 1970s (this particular item was issued in 1978).

The kit below, from the 1990s, was secured by velcro to the body of the kit. Inside the pockets were two plastic bags, one with buttons, and the other with thread, a thimble and a needle threader. Needles and safety pins were attached to the black felt. The sample below is dated 1991.

Thread was provided in white, black, and two shades of olive green. The needle threader is stamped GERMANY while the thimble is marked TAIWAN.

Buttons include the large (30mm) type found on combat clothing, kit bags, etc., in green, black and white, as well as small (20mm) buttons.

Do you have a military sewing kit or housewife that has been passed down the generations?

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