A pincushion is a small cushion which is designed to hold sewing pins. To use a pincushion, people stick straight pins into the cushion, relying on the tightly packed filling to keep the pins from falling out. When a pin is needed, it can easily be pulled out by its bulbous head. Many sewing supply stores carry pincushions, and it is also very easy to make your own.
In order to be effective, a pincushion must have a compact filling which will not shift or leak, and the filling cannot be damaged by repeated pokings. Many people fill pincushions with sand, small plastic granules, or seed beads. The casing for a pincushion also needs to be sturdy; felt is a good choice of material, since it will not break down when pinned repeatedly. Sewers can also use thick cottons.
The basic pincushion emerged in England in the 1500s, in the form of a simple pillow stuffed with something like wheat chaff. Pins were quite costly at the time, and therefore sewers wanted to ensure that they would not lose them. Originally, pins were kept in cases, but a case of pins is not easy to use while working on a sewing project, as there is a risk of poking one's fingers or dropping the case and spilling pins all over the floor. As a result, the pincushion emerged, and it became a popular and must-have item for seamstresses.
By the 1800s, companies were producing pincushions commercially, for people who didn't want to make their own, and they were often elaborately decorated. Some were designed to resemble fruits and vegetables; the classic strawberry pincushion endures today. Novelty pincushions were sometimes displayed in a sewing room or parlor, rather than being actively used, and people purchased pincushions as souvenirs of events and trips.
The modern pincushion can be utilitarian or decorative, depending on personal taste, and it is certainly a useful thing to have. While sewing pins are not as costly as they once were, it is still irritating to lose them, especially if the pins are dropped on the floor, where they could hurt bare feet, or if pins become tangled up in fabric, creating a potential poking hazard. Numerous companies make specialty pincushions like versions which can be worn on the wrist while sewing or attached with Velcro to quilting tables and sewing chairs.