Last week I stopped by one of my favourite op-shops between errands, and had a rummage in their $3 fill-a-bag fabric bin. I didn’t find any fabric, but I did find something even better.
This is a hussif, hussuf, hussy, huswif, hussive or housewife (so, basically any way you can spell a contraction of housewife).
A hussuf is a fabric case for carrying all your sewing implements. The most common form is a long rectangle of padded fabric that rolls up into a small packet, so that you can easily take all your sewing bits with you everywhere.
A 1910s dictionary describes it as:
Husszf, that is, house-wife; a roll of flannel with a pin-cushion attached, used for the purpose of holding pins, needles, and thread
The term housewife (and its derivatives) for a sewing kit dates back to the mid-18th century.
The many variants of housewife are theorised to have originated in the regional dialect of Lancashire: during the 18th and 19th century the port of Lancaster was one of the busiest in England (heavily involved in the slave trade, among other things). Sailors had to do their own mending, and had to be able to easily carry all their own goods, so housewifes were perfect for their lifestyle. Many sailors came from Lancashire, and other sailors picked up the local term for the kits from them, or when they visited the port.
While women certainly carried and used them, housewifes are most associated with sailors and soldiers. We know that soldiers on both sides of the conflict brought their own kits in the American Civil War. An 1855 investigation into the poor performance of the British army in the Crimean war pointed out that the Russian soldiers all carried hussifs, and that if the English army had done the same, English soldiers would not have been in rags at Sevastapol. In WWI and WWII they were popular items for women’s sewing groups to make to include in care packages. Patriotic councils provided guidelines for the appropriate housewife to best fit the soldiers. According to one newspaper report, almost 50,000 kits were made and/or filled by ‘hussif groups’ between 1940 and 1944.
While military and naval housewives were probably quite functional, there were also prettier housewives for less strenuous use. The pages who attended on Prinny were supplied in 1789 with a “striped silk Housewife filled with coloured silks, thread, needles & thimbles” presumably so they could assist if the Prince had any urgent wardrobe malfunctions. Over a century later, and slightly less factually, Barrie’s Wendy has a housewife which she produces to sew Peter Pan’s shadow to his foot. Most were probably homemade, but they could also be purchased commercially.
Housewives were common throughout the mid 18th and 19th centuries, and into the first half of the 20th. They were standard issue for British soldiers until after WWII (that 1855 report must have had some effect), and there are at least a few stories of soldiers carrying them in the Vietnam War. Along with the military using them in their original sense, as transportable sewing kits, many modern sewist still make their own housewives.
I’m not sure how old my kit is: the outer fabrics and satin are no older than the 1940s, but it’s in very good condition and doesn’t appear to have had much use. Unless it was made with entirely vintage materials, right down to the cardstock of the scissor holder, it’s not a modern piece.
It’s got a cunning gathered pocket:
And a perfectly fitted holder for a pair of scissors:
And a wee little pocket, possibly for a thimble:
And what I suspect is a bodkin holder:
Plus a buttoned pocket, and a bit of fabric for holding threaded needles, all covered with beautifully enthusiastic, if not necessarily particularly skilful, embroidery.
It also had three delicious secrets.
I bought the housewife just because I thought it was too wonderful to pass on, but when I got it home, I realised there were lumps in two of the pockets.
The first lump revealed itself to be a teeny-tiny cunning measuring tape. I’ve never seen one like it. You twist the sides to scroll the tape in and out, and can twist the numbers on either side (presumably to record the measurement while you work with it, so you don’t forget?)
The measuring tape is Made in England, and in inches.
The other secret is even better, and I missed it at first, and only noticed it when I was checking all the pockets to photograph them.
The buttoned pocket had a flat lump of paper in it, which I initially thought was just scrap. But I unfolded it, and it revealed two NZ sixpences:
One from 1934, and one from 1937:
What a find! I’d love to know the story behind it!