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Soldiers Sewing

In honor of last Monday’s Memorial Day, let’s talk a bit about soldiers’ and sailors’ sewing skills.

The word “hussif” is a variation of “housewife,” and since the 18th Century has been used to denote a kind of sewing kit common in households and among the military. At a time when military uniforms were handmade and had to be provided by the recruit, a soldier’s or sailor’s gear would include a sewing kit, typically made by his mother, his wife, or his sweetheart. He was going to have to learn to be his own housewife and gain his own sewing skills. But some soldiers and sailors went far beyond the basics, and made their own sewing kits, with some spectacular results.

hussif yeates
Hussif made by Drummer Yeates of the 88th (Connaught Rangers) Regiment of Foot. He was awarded a prize for it at a military workshop exhibition in 1867. From the National Army Museum of the United Kingdom.
hussif boer war
Boer War Housewife, attributed to Quatermaster-Sergeant Seymour Spencer. (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 18-Aug-2014

Later, such kits would be made standard military issue.

hussif bbc
Military-issue hussif.
wwi hussif
World War I hussif. From the Auckland Museum, New Zealand.

The typical hussif would include thread and wax for waterproofing it, darning wool, a selection of needles, extra buttons, a thimble, and other small mending materials.

These were necessary items, and the skills to use them were also considered vital. In this American Civil War stereoscope photo, the soldier in the foreground is sewing while the others write letters.

soldiers sewing
Camp life, Army of the Potomac–writing to friends at home, from the Library of Congress.

Another stereoscope photo from the Spanish-American War:

soldier sewing
In the Library of Congress photo collection, this one is titled, “Every soldier his own sewing society.”

This soldier has his scissors handily attached to his coat button:

soldier sewing 2

And this one has a human and feline audience:


In this photo from the National Park Service,  sailor Bill Maris threads a needle for darning his sock:

sailor sewing

The Royal Navy, as an example, had a long tradition of sailors sewing and decorating their own clothes, tailoring the standard-issue “slops” to fit better. That tradition extended into the 20th Century, and  just to show it wasn’t all hand sewing, here is a World War II-era photo of a Royal Navy sailor on board HMS Alcantara using a portable sewing machine:
wwii sewing

And I would like to say that while war may create necessity, it is certainly not the only place where the skills of making and mending have value.

Posted by BW