Because admit it: You're curious, aren't you?

By Alexandra Churchill
September 05, 2014
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What's red and ripe and bursting at the seams with sewing pins? That enduring icon of the needlework world: the produce-inspired pincushion better known as the tomato cushion.

If you grew up in a crafty household like I did, odds are you've seen one before -- either in your mother's sewing box or tucked away in a drawer among a pile of unraveling spools. But did you ever stop to wonder where this little oddity comes from?

Pincushions come in all shapes and sizes, but the tomato is the design that prevails as the classic. But why a tomato of all things? Turns out it's not random: There's actually a reason for the tomato design, and it dates back to the Victorian era.

The first-ever documented mention of a generic pincushion dates back to the Middle Ages. Of course, in those days, they were more whimsically called "pimpilowes," "pyn pillows," and "pin-poppets." The pincushion was invented as a practical aid for storing pins and needles, but it also showcased one's collection of pins and needles. (Needles were costly, after all.) But the less-iconic shapes of dolls, birds, and prettily-packaged boxes left something to be desired.

Enter the time-honored tomato. According to tradition, placing a tomato on the mantel of a new home ensured prosperity by warding off evil spirits. When tomatoes were out of season, people weren't totally out of luck: They simply improvised with red material, sawdust, and a little bit of ingenuity.

A lady of the Victorian era would take immense pride in a parlor room stocked with shelves upon shelves of pincushions, but the tomato was always the crown jewel of her collection. Since then, we've been piercing our pins into stuffed fabric tomatoes without question. But it's "sew" much more fun to know where they come from, am I right?

Ready to put your needle to work? Stay sharp as a tack with this classic pincushion project from Martha:

Do you have a tomato pincushion at home? Did your mother or your mother's mother have one too? Share your pincushion memories with us in the comments below!

Comments (22)

Anonymous
October 28, 2019
the fiber-fill alone has potential to dull the needles as well as make the project too light. if you plan to use them often, i'd go with the crushed walnut shells (available at pet stores for reptiles) it adds weight and sharpens needles...or make sure you add that baby tomato filled with sand. also, tomatoes were thought to be poisonous because the citiric acid would leach the poisons out of the pewter plates as the people ate from; the pewter held the poison, but the tomato was blamed for lack of science at the time. and i never heard the tomato windowsill thing either, learn something new everyday.... happy sewing!
Anonymous
January 15, 2019
Remember the little strawberry that hangs off the tomato ? It was filled with sand and when u poked the needle into it sevwral times, it would sharpen the tip. My grandmother had a tomato filled with sand instead if sawdust.
Anonymous
January 15, 2019
I just added one to a sewing kit I put together to send to Syrian refugees .
Anonymous
August 21, 2016
I don't think this is true because: 1. I can't find a reliable source for the tomato on the mantle story 2. Tomatoes were from South America and when introduced to Europe in the 16th century and for some time after believed to be poisonous.
Anonymous
August 21, 2016
I would like to know how I triggered the spam filter.
Anonymous
September 16, 2015
This is very timely! My 8-year old son was just asking me on the weekend why I had a tomato shaped pin cushion. Now I can tell him why :)
Anonymous
April 17, 2015
i remember sitting and watching my grandmother sew all the time. I always wondered what the little strawberry was for, now I know. Thanks for the info on the strawberry in the comments and thanks for the tomato memories :)
Anonymous
October 24, 2014
I'm scared that I'll throw kerosene on the fire, but ... even when I was a very little kid at my mother's knee, I wondered why the tomato had a strawberry attached. I mean, how hard is it to make the sharpener round, not tapered?
Anonymous
October 24, 2014
My mother had a tomato pincushion, with a strawberry full of iron filings attached, for cleaning and sharpening the needles. When I started sewing, my aunt gave me a pretty sewing box, and my mother bought me a tomato pincushion with strawberry. I still use mine, and my mother's is still in her sewing box. My mom has been gone awhile, but I always smile when I look in her sewing box and see her tomato pincushion. I love them!
Anonymous
September 20, 2014
Oh, the memories! I was recently organizing my late mothers sewing cabinet when I came across our two tomato pincushions filled with sawdust. I could feel all of the needles and pins that had been buried in the sawdust . To retrieve them I disassembled the tomato and what happened was most unexpected. I was overcome with memories and emotion realizing that the last people to handle those needles and pins were my mother, aunt and grandmother. It was an amazing closeness that I will always cherish. Thank you, Alexandra for highlighting the "tomato cushion".
Anonymous
September 13, 2014
I have one that I received in my first real sewing kit from the 60's as a child still in my sewing kit today. It was wonderful to learn the story of why we have tomato-shaped pin cushions. Speaking of pincushions, after Christmas, I'm planning on making a decorative felt one for myself, but not in a tomato shape. Hope my luck holds out - hah!
Anonymous
September 13, 2014
The pincushion I own was purchased for my first sewing class in junior high school, in 1953-54 . It's now a little worn and faded, but I treasure it still and hope that one of my four daughters will appreciate it one day. The little attached "strawberry" used to clean/sharpen pins and needles disappeared some time ago. If I were to make a new pincushion, I would use old tomato-red fabric, fill it with sawdust, and make a strawberry filled with sand.
Anonymous
September 12, 2014
My childhood beheld both the tomato and the strawberry in various sewing baskets owned by my Grandmothers, Mother, and Aunts . They always make me smile...I've seen both versions in different sizes and materials.
Anonymous
September 12, 2014
My grandmother was a seamstress and her pincushions were stuffed with sawdust, and I think that's the best material. I've made cute pincushions using that polyester fill--they look good but pins just don't go into them as well. I bet birdseed would work too. And when my grandmother's reached a certain age, she'd cut them open to retrieve all the needles that buried themselves inside. They were just plain old tomato cushions from the dime store (when was the last time you heard THAT term?). ;)
Anonymous
September 12, 2014
I hate to bust Alexandra Churchill's bubble but it's NOT a tomato pincushion, it's a STRAWBERRY pincushion. I know it always seemed to look like a tomato since for 95% of women's pincushions out there had lost their little attached mini strawberry sttached by a string of green floss. Now I admit the ones that are shown on the page of this article have been made to look like tomatoes, the original that most of your grandmothers owned was originally sold as a strawberry.
Anonymous
September 12, 2014
The tomato pin cushion was always in my mother's sewing box...I loved the little bud that hung off the side that was filled with sand to sharpen the points of a dull needle or pin!
Anonymous
September 12, 2014
I still have my gramma's! Its not pristine - and is leaking "sawdust" but, I won't get rid of it!
Anonymous
September 12, 2014
I still have my Mom's. It might be older than me!
Anonymous
September 12, 2014
Oddly, I loved pushing ALL the pins down flat into the tomato cushion and then draw them upward one at a time to create a variety of designs. It was important to pull all the pins up when design time was over as Mama would not have liked to come to her sewing table only to discover that someine has been "messing" around in her quiet space. Thanks for this memory Martha Stewart!
Anonymous
September 12, 2014
Yes, definitely can recall that my Mother, Grandmother and Aunt had one. Even though I am a sewer myself, in all honesty I have never had a 'tomato' one. Perhaps I will have to add it to My-To-Do-List. ☺ -Brenda-
Anonymous
September 12, 2014
Interesting. I love these kinds of posts.
Anonymous
September 12, 2014
yes, I have one, my mom had one, my grandmas had them, everyone had one. ;)