Putting Together a Medieval Sewing Kit

I put this kit together for a gift exchange at a local Yule revel. I tried to include as many as possible of the basic tools anyone trying to do medieval-style hand sewing would need, and chose a box big enough to accommodate additional tools the recipient might want to add (or small in-progress projects).

The budget for the exchange was $10-20 per gift. As you'll see, if I'd had to buy new materials for all the elements I included, I couldn't have done it without going a little over. But many of them were made from scraps left over from other projects, so all they cost me was my labor.

The kit contained:

I also created and tucked into the box a printout giving my evidence for the authenticity of the various elements of the case (similar to the information in the tables below, but abbreviated) and a brief explanation of the purpose of each item with which I thought the recipient might not be familiar (similar to the information in parentheses in the list above). I consider such inserts an important part of an S.C.A. gift, for two reasons: (1) Many members of the Society choose to bring to events or to use outside the confines of their personal camps only items that meet certain authenticity standards, which vary from individual to individual. When I share what I know about an item's plausibility in a medieval or Renaissance setting I make it easier for the recipient to decide whether it's "event-appropriate"for her or him. (2) It's pretty common for one SCAdian to approach another at an event and say, "I've never seen one of those before. Where does it come from?" or something of the sort. It's a lot more fun to show off a neat doo-dad at events if you can answer such questions and maybe talk a little about the context in which the item was originally produced or used than if you have to say, "I don't know. But it is pretty, isn't it?"


Things I Bought for the Kit

Period Equivalent

Purchased Item(s)


Purchase Price

Bentwood boxes have been in use across Europe for millennia. Karen Larsdatter has compiled a list of annotated links to period images of them and photos of surviving examples that reflects their common use in the Middle Ages as containers for all manner of things.

detail from Domenico Ghirlandaio's St. Jerome in His Study, 1480

The box is 7 inches in diameter.
A craft supply chain store--I don't remember which. We'd had it stuffed in a closet for several years by the time I started this project, having bought it for another one that never got done.

I'm not sure. I think it was about $3 (bought on sale).

medieval scissors made of iron

Fiskars classic forged steel #4 embroidery scissors
my local JoAnn Fabrics and Crafts store

about $3.50

(I used a 40% off coupon.)

The Spanish Peacock


($5 each for two)

Christian de Holacombe and Michaela de Neuville's article, "A Period Workbox", says medieval pins were sometimes headed with small blobs of glass. I couldn't find images of any, but I did find this photo of medieval pins that, aside from the fact that the heads are made of metal, closely resemble the ones I bought.

glass-headed pins
my local JoAnn Fabrics and Crafts store

about 25¢

(A pack of 40 was less than $2.50.)

Multiple sources, including Heather Rose Jones' article, "Archaeological Sewing", indicate that flaxen thread (sometimes inaccurately called "linen thread") was commonly used for sewing in period. I loaded one of my thread winders with unbleached flaxen thread, as you can see in the photo below. The Smoke and Fire Company

5¢ or less

(A whole spool was $6.)
Flaxen thread is stronger and more resistant to abrasion if it's run through a bit of beeswax before it's used. It's generally assumed that this practice was common in the Middle Ages.

my local Tandy Leather Factory store

about $1

(I used a little less than one third of a one-ounce piece that cost about $3.25.)


Things I Made for the Kit

Evidence for Authenticity

My Version


Materials Source and Cost

a medieval thread winder made of horn


made of poplar
I used a hand saw to cut inch-and-a-half long pieces of two-inch-wide, one-eighth-inch-thick poplar, then to cut those pieces in half along the grain. I sanded all sides with medium, then with fine sand paper. Then I rubbed either long side of each rectangle against a one-inch round wood rasp until I'd scraped a curve of the desired depth into it. Finally I sanded the curved edges, again with medium, then fine sand paper.

roughly 10¢
(total, for all three)

The wood came from a local home improvement store. A two-foot board cost about a dollar.


I haven't been able to track down any period images of eyelet awls or any photos of surviving ones from the Middle Ages. The fact that they were widely used is mentioned in multiple sources, however, and they seem to be necessary for certain common applications (like making drawstring holes on bags). I looked to commercially-available awls for inspiration.

I used a hand saw to cut a piece of quarter-inch-diameter craft dowel a little more than two and a half inches long, then rubbed it at an angle against a flat wood rasp, turning it a little bit every few strokes to create as regular a taper as possible. When I had the basic shape I wanted, I rubbed the piece against coarse, then medium, then fine sand paper to smooth it. I used the same process to gently round the broad end of the awl.

maybe 5¢

medieval bodkin made of bone

made of wood
I used two popsicle sticks for my bodkins. One I cut in half width-wise and then trimmed down length-wise until the proportions were about right. Then I rubbed either side of one end of each stick against a flat wood rasp until it had roughly the taper I wanted. I drilled small holes near the other end, roughly as far apart as I wanted the ends of the slot in the bodkin to be. Then I used a craft knife to cut out the wood between them. Finally I sanded all sides of the bodkins and the slots.

no cost

(The sticks were saved from frozen treats some months before I used them. You could, alternatively, buy craft sticks or shave down thicker lengths of wood to the right thickness.)

Leather cases were popular means of protecting all manner of tools and decorative objects in the Middle Ages. Karen Larsdatter has composed a list of links to images that will give you an idea of the boggling variety of their shapes and sizes. I made separate cases for needles and pins, using the same piece as my inspiration for both but tailoring the size and shape of each to the needles or pins I planned to include in the kit.

a medieval pin case made of leather

Each case consists of a leather box, decorated with stamping on the front. There's a tube made of leather of the same weight inside, which is attached at the bottom to the base of the box and over which the lid slides when it's put on. A string connects the lid to the base of the box, running through slots in both.

A description of the process by which I made them is available on a separate page.

about $1.75

(total, for the cases and thimbles)


The leather and waxed linen thread came from my local Tandy Leather Factory store. The leather was about $4 a square foot, I think (on sale). The scraps I used totaled about 61 square inches. I don't remember how much the thread was, but I used less than a yard, so that's a few cents at most.

The silk thread I used to make the braid for the cases came from a local embroidery supply store, The Needle Works. I used couple of yards of it--a few cents' worth.

I've seen many sources that say leather thimbles were common in the Middle Ages, but haven't been able to find a description, drawing, or photo of one. So I designed mine based on metal medieval thimbles I've seen. Real medieval leather thimbles might have looked nothing like these. Modern leather thimbles used for quilting and leatherwork certainly don't. But since I had nothing else to go on, I decided this was the best approach.

medieval thimbles made of bronze

I cut a trapezoid for the tapered thimble, a rectangle for the cylindrical one, and a circle for each. The ends of the trapezoid or rectangle were joined with a butted seam, and the circle was whip-stitched onto the top. On the tapered thimble the circle is small and inset into the top. On the cylindrical one it is larger and rests on the upper edges of the shaft. I'm not sure which will, ultimately, be preferable. I used a small round leather stamp to pattern the outside, to make the thimble less prone to slip. The leather stiffened as it dried, and the thimbles are pretty rigid.

I've found no evidence of sheaths of any kind being used for scissors in period. However, medieval people did make a stunning variety of leather cases, covers, and sheaths of various other types to protect all sorts of items. I think it reasonable to speculate that a scissors-sheath of some sort might have existed. I've seen sheaths for knives that seem to have been made of fairly soft leather folded around the blade and stitched along one side, and it seems to me a plausible approach to making one for scissors.


medieval knife sheath

The soft leather I used was left over from another project. There happened to be a small, roughly triangular section attached to the rest of the piece only by a long, skinny strip. I cut it free partway along the strip, then folded the triangle in half around the blades of the scissors and trimmed it to fit. (There was virtually no waste.) Positioning the folded triangle so that the strip was in the back, I marked the locations for two short slits on the front. I cut them, then sewed the long edges of the triangle together using a double running stitch. When the sheath is in use, the strip runs through one handle of the scissors, in one slit, and out the other. Friction keeps it in place, and it keeps the scissors from slipping out of the sheath. 

about 20¢

We bought an entire side of this leather a couple of years ago, at about $4 a square foot, I think (on sale).

I didn't want to leave the beeswax loose in the box, lest it melt in the heat of some glorious Ansteorran summer (or spring, or autumn) and ruin a project or damage tools. The website of The Vikings (a U.K.-based re-enactment group) mentions a number of leather pouches found at the Haithabu site that were simply circles of leather with thongs run around them. The finds date to an earlier period than most of my inspiration pieces, but the design is so simple and string-drawn pouches of all kinds were so popular in the Middle Ages that I find it very likely that a pouch of this type would excite no comment in the later period. It has, additionally, the advantage of allowing the user to spread it completely flat, if need be, to get at a lump of wax melted to the bottom, or to open it into a saucer-shape and let it double as a resting-place for wax that's being used.

I made my pouch smaller than the dimensions given in the kit guide for The Vikings. There's no mention on that site as to whether the recommended size is typical of all the artifacts or is simply a convenient one for a belt-pouch, and I knew a pouch of the size described would be too big for my purposes.

I would've used thinner thonging to tie the bag, it being so small, but I didn't have any on hand. The scraps I did have make the bag a little stiff to open, but I think that will change as the leather softens with use. If not, it should be a simple matter for the recipient to replace it.

Using a saucer as a template, I drew a six-inch circle on a scrap of soft leather. I cut the circle out. Then I made twelve evenly-spaced slits around it near the edge and threaded two thongs through them, beginning and ending each one on the side opposite the other. I tied the ends of each thong together, and a good tug on both drew the circle up into a pouch.

about $3.40

The leather was another scrap of what I used for the sheath. The thonging was from a bag of scraps bought by the pound; I don't think it cost more than a few cents.


Things I Didn't Include But Could Have

If I'd had more room in my budget, I would've included a bone eyelet awl from The Spanish Peacock, like the one I keep in my own sewing kit, instead of making one. They're perfectly smooth and an absolute dream to use.

Medieval needle cases came in many forms (far too many to allow me to give a representative sample here). The simplest were just segments of bird bones with the marrow cleared out and wooden stoppers in both ends. Plain and decorated metal tubes were also popular, as were multiple types of leather cases. Karen Larsdatter's annotated links to sites related to medieval and Renaissance tailors, seamstresses, and sewing tools will lead you to images of a variety. Billy and Charlie sell a lovely pewter one shaped like a tower that's based on Dutch and English 15th-century exemplars. Steve Millingham Pewter Replicas sells another 15th-century design, featuring devotional phrases. And Martin and Dörte Planert make bronze and silver replicas of an ornate silver pendant needle case from 12th-century Russia.  

Spring-type shears were widely used in the Middle Ages. Both the Smoke and Fire Company and Fettered Cock Pewters carry iron ones about the size of the scissors I used, for about what I spent on those. I have a pair myself (bought from Smoke and Fire). They're O.K., but the metal's fairly thin and prone to twisting out of shape. The heavier scissors seemed like a better use of the money, to me. Of course, if I'd had a much bigger budget, I might've bought a hand-forged pair from the Jelling Dragon or some of the lovely reproductions offered by Historic Enterprises

I could've saved more of my budget for other things by using inexpensive metal needles instead of the bone ones I chose. Needles made of iron, bronze, and other metals were common in the Middle Ages, and closely resembled modern steel sewing needles.  (Of course, I thought the bone ones were more interesting.)

Alternatively, I might (had I the skill to make them or the money to commission them) have given wooden needles. There are surviving medieval examples of those, too.

Inexpensive thimbles similar in shape to the cylindrical or dome-shaped medieval ones are available from many fabric and craft stores (though they are usually made of aluminum, and may not resemble the bronze or iron thimbles of the Middle Ages in color).

Ring-shaped thimbles were also common in period. Historic Enterprises sells a brass reproduction that's hand-made and comes in two sizes. Westair Reproductions mass-produces a bronze-plated pewter version that can be bought through multiple vendors, including Fettered Cock Pewters. (They also make a reproduction Renaissance thimble embossed with a hunting scene that might interest those with later personae.)

A slightly tapered wooden cylinder a little less than an inch and a half tall with some simple decorative grooves was found in the 11th- to 12th-century layers of the site at Fröjel, in Gotland (Sweden). It's believed likely to be a thimble. Reproducing it would probably be a fairly simple prospect for an experienced wood turner, and it would make an interesting thimble option.  
I don't think it would be difficult to make wound-head pins out of wire, using jewelry-making tools. You could point and sharpen them by rubbing them against a whetstone. (There are some surviving sharpening-stones that seem to have been used this way, based on their wear patterns.)  And I couldn't find any when I went shopping, but pins with spherical metal heads used to be sold at every fabric and craft store. I'm sure they're still available somewhere. Both of these were used in the Middle Ages. (The details to left and right come from the photo used in the table above.)
Some medieval bodkins were made of iron. Metal bodkins that closely resemble them can sometimes be found at craft and fabric stores.   
The process by which I made my thread winders could've been used to make square ones with indents on three or four sides, instead of the two-sided ones I made. This shape might work better for larger quantities of thread, or for coarser threads. If you wanted deeper indents, you could use a rasp with a smaller diameter.  

If you can point me to photos or medieval images of any additional items one might include in a medieval sewing kit, please share. I'd love to learn more.


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