The four cloth sheaths in Figure 2 are the only ones I had seen in 15 years of collecting – until recently. The top left-hand sheath is a utilitarian heart made from machine-embroidered fabric with a carefully gathered cloth edging stitched in place and the pointed end of a quill affixed to the back by stitching across it many times. The quill is then decorated with a cut-fringe edge.
Bottom left is another, slightly dressier, heart-shaped sheath with a contrasting fabric edging stitched on, a quill needle holder in the centre, and embroidered flowers at the bottom. This was advertised as a Shaker item, but my Shaker-expert friends say probably not.
The middle sheath came from the collection of Eileen Schwall and was purchased by her in the late 1960’s from a New England antique store. Although it is now in rather poor condition, it is actually quite elaborate, having a small tin tube with flattened bottom and a piecrust lip stitched to the black velvet backing. The diamond-shaped pad has a silk ribbon edging, now mainly perished, and a separate hessian backing. This type of item was so little known in the mid-twentieth century that Mrs Schwall discussed the sheath with Anne MacDonald, the author of No Idle Hands. They turned up a November, 1848, reference from the popular US magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, which said : “a knitting sheath, &c, to be fastened on the waist of the knitter, toward the right hand, for the purpose of keeping the needle in a steady and proper position.”
The right-hand sheath is beautifully embroidered with flowers and a blanket stitch edging. It was de-accessioned from a Massachusetts museum, and still has the name of the donor on the attached card which I have not removed. Also still attached is the donor’s other gift, a small square whalebone sheath with fretwork edges and a needle tube on the reverse made by carving down the original thickness of the whalebone. Oh well – the museum’s loss is my gain – and at least I know how to appreciate these lovely items.
But another recent find may indicate that this type of needlework knitting sheath was more widely used than suggested by four finds in 15 years. While toiling with my favourite search engine, I came up with a listing from a 1905 Museum of the Confederacy catalogue, held at that time in the New York Public Library Reference Department. The 1905 catalogue read : “Knitting Sheath made by Mrs. Jefferson Davis for Mrs. Ann Grant to decorate a Christmas tree, which proved to be the last Christmas of the Confederacy. Mrs. Davis wrote a charming story of Christmas in the Confederate White House for a New York paper December 13, 1896. Presented by Mrs. Ann Grant.”
What a find! I quickly emailed the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, and enquired if they might – 105 years later – still have this item. I enclosed the Figure 2 photo to illustrate what I was talking about in case the staff couldn’t interpret my query.
And what a relief! The museum easily recognised the cataloguing reference and did have the item. Curator Cathy Wright noted, “I was delighted to receive your message, as the sheath to which you refer has been among my favorite objects. It has been popularly known around here as “the Christmas ornament,” as it is one of the rare items in our collection associated with that holiday. Far fewer people realize the “ornament” actually had a useful purpose.”