craft, Mary Frances sewing

Sewing Basket

Where did we last leave Mary and her Thimble people?

Background: Mary’s mother has never been very strong so Father has taken her to California for the summer while he’s there on business. Mary’s brother Billy, who is a first-class scout, is at scout camp where he is presumably learning about scouting with his peers from human scout leaders. Mary is spending her summer at her Grandmother’s house.

Mary’s grandmother has a fully kitted out sewing room, but her eyesight has grown bad and she cannot sew anymore or teach Mary how to sew. Granny’s vision loss doesn’t affect her social schedule and she is often out and about, leaving Mary home alone to amuse herself. She’s not totally alone though: there’s Katie the live-in servant who is always busy (and I suspect is an indentured Irish servant), Dick the real bird, and the Sewing Bird. The Sewing Bird is a talking, anthropomorphic, shape-shifting (more later) sewing bird (see earlier posts) who seems to be the leader of the Thimble People.

The Sewing Bird has agreed to teach Mary how to sew in on the condition of her silence about the existence of the Thimble People (sometimes called Thimble Folks).

Let us join them:

Mary: “I don’t want to become a little birdie, even though they are so dear,—besides, I don’t have wings.”

”No,” said Sewing Bird. “I don’t suppose you do want to be a birdie—for many reasons;—but the most important must be that little birds do not have hands!”

”Hands are so wonderful!” said Mary Frances, “they can do so many things. They are pincers, hammers, wedges, and yet they can do the most dainty, delicate work.”

“Yes,” said Sewing Bird, “they come in handy!”

“Oh, ho, hee-hee!” laughed Mary Frances.”


Fun Fact: Prior to the 1920’s female children were protected from actual jokes, for fear it would damage their chances of getting a husband.

We start today: learning to stock a proper sewing work basket. I personally have a work room and things spill out to every corner of my apartment so I’m fascinated by the idea of a single container for sewing items. I aspire to be more organized.

To Outfit a Work Basket

  1. Spools of cotton, white, Nos. 36, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80; also one of red, No. 50. One spool of basting cotton.

Already I am lost. I’m a self-taught sewist* and I’ve never ever bother to learn about thread weight. I know it exists. I’ve used the wrong thread before. I always see and then ignore those little numbers on thread.

*Sewist: Sewing/Artist. Recently coined. A seamstress generally makes items for other people and a sewer sounds weird.  I go with sewist. My auto-correct keeps trying to tell me I’m a self-taught sexist.

Here I will explore threads and geek a bit:

There’s a bunch of different ways to number and categorize threads: Tex, Denier, English Cotton Count, Weight, Gunze count…

Generally what you and I will encounter in a fabric store are thread numbers based on weight (wt) and Gunze Count.

wt: The most common weight system specifies the length of the thread in kilometres required to weigh 1 kilogram. Therefore, a greater weight number indicates a thinner, finer thread.

Take away: The bigger the number, the finer the thread.

Example: 50wt thread is your basic all-purpose thread. It’s probably what you load up your sewing machine with. You’re probably using a poly/cotton blend most of the time. The thread number has NOTHING to do with the composition of the thread though: Cotton can be 50wt, poly/cotton can also be 50wt, they will feel and sew different but have the same wt.

If you’re doing heavy denim top stitching, the yellowish stitch you see on jeans, you might be using a heavier 18wt thread. (conversely: the lower the number, the thicker the thread)

I  live in Japan so I get a little more information on my spools.

The Gunze Count is the Japanese Standard for thread and is what the American wt was derived from. The Gunze Count uses two numbers separated by a forward slash. wt/how many strands of fiber were used to make the finished thread.

Example: The same all-purpose thread, a 50wt, might be a #50/3 here. The 50 indicates the weight and the 3 shows that three separate strands of fiber were combined to make the finished thread.

Female mill workers and scientists working together at GUNZE

How did a Japanese system spread world-wide? Because Japan’s Gunze Company was awarded Gold Medal at EXPO in Paris in 1900 and soon started exporting worldwide! They are currently Japan’s Leading Maker in Industrial Sewing Thread.

Yes, they have a website with English.

Mary’s Thread:
I think the white spools of cotton and numbers listed for Mary Frances may actually be “English Cotton Count/ Ne”. It’s out of date and is used exclusively for cotton. Ne (Number English) or cotton count  is the number of hanks (840 yd or 770 m) of skein material that weigh 1 pound (0.45 kg). Why is it out of date? Because Metric fucking rules!

For a more useful breakdown of threads in your life I found this article helpful.

Back to the basket already:

2. One little strawberry emery bag to brighten and sharpen needles.

3. Pins.

4. A piece of beeswax.

5. A tape measure.

6. A pair of scissors.

7. A paper of ground-down needles, Nos. 5’s—lO’s.
(I’m tired from the threads so I’ll investigate needles later. Generally, the higher the number the finer the needle)
8. Some unbleached muslin.

9. Thimble.

oh, look! here is a large piece of Java canvas, and a package of blunt tapestry or zephyr needles, No. 19, and some red D. M. C. working cotton, No. 8, that Grandma put in here yesterday.”

Java Canvas is the same thing as Aida Cloth. It’s that evenly woven fabric used for cross stitch.  A zephyr needle is a tapestry needle.

It is with these tools that Sewing Bird teaches Mary the following stitches:

  • Even and uneven basting
  • Running
  • Back-stitching
  • Half back-stitching
  • Overcasting
  • Overhanding
  • Catch stitching
  • Button-hole stitch
  • Darning
  • Blanket stitch

Using evenly woven canvas so children can clearly see where their needles go in and out and how evenly spaced they are >IS< a good idea. However, my copy of the book often has a misaligned color plate making the technical illustrations difficult to look at.


You wanna know these stitches…the internet is here to help. That’s what I used…. (except when the internet confused blanket stitch for button stitch or assumed both names refer to one stitch.) I did NOT practice each stitch OR make a stitch sampler.

And with that we hear grandmother’s feet on the stairs.

“Our lesson is

Now at an end,—

That’s all to-day,

My little friend,”

just then sang Sewing Bird.

”I forgot to ask,” said Mary Frances, ”May I show Grandma, or tell her about—about our lessons?”

“That I already

Should have shown;

I cannot sing

Where people grown

Can hear: if they hear now

Or even ever,

I may become

A Never-Never”

“Oh, ho,” smiled Mary Frances, softly smoothing the little bird. “I’m so glad I haven’t told. I am certainly glad, dear little Teacher Bird—I don’t want you to be a Never-Never,—whatever that is.”

And remember: do not obey little birds. To be silent is to be complicit.

Next time we meet the violent Thimble Folk.


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