Pincushions are the most common form of Iroquois beadwork and the most recognizable form to the casual observer. They come in at least 25 basic shapes in many different sizes and at least 24 types. All are comprised of a fabric front, often with a binding around the edge in a different fabric. A silk ribbon is sometimes used. The binding covers the edges of the front and back fabric and the stitches holding them together. Edging beads are usually sewn over the binding.
Velvet is the favored material for the front of pincushions, but other fabrics are used also. Silk, twill, and velveteen are often used. A shiny stiff material variously referred to as oilcloth, cambric, polished cotton, or chintz commonly covers the pincushion backs.
Often there are decorative beaded loops around all or part of the pincushions. Most pincushions have beaded hangers. Some pincushions have cord or cloth hangers. It appears that most pincushions were meant to hang. Even the very largest ones have hangers. Trilobe pincushions weighing over two pounds have twisted beaded hangers.
The majority of pincushions are stuffed with sawdust. It is said that sewers’ husbands brought home sawdust from their jobs in sawmills. Late 20th century pincushions are usually stuffed with cotton or 100% polyester, but sawdust is still used. Some sewers have polished wooden stuffing sticks to push the stuffing into all the pincushion corners.
The most diagnostic feature of Iroquois pincushions is the beaded designs on the front. Beads often are sewn around the perimeter of the pincushion over a binding. Usually there are one or two parallel beaded lines around the edge of the piece inside of the edging beads. On the simplest pincushions there are no edging beads and the binding is plain. A wide variety of designs cover the front of the pincushions. Sometimes there are so many beads that there is little room to insert pins in it.
Beaded birds and flowers are the most common designs. Sometimes other animals like squirrels, cats, dogs, rabbits, beavers, and butterflies are beaded on the front of pincushions. Usually the beadwork is sown over a pattern cut out of paper. Niagara beadwork features only a few beaded animals while Mohawk beadwork displays a wide variety of fantastic animals.
Hearts are the most common pincushion shape. I consider symmetrical and asymmetrical three- lobed or trilobe shapes in the heart category. Out of the 205 heart pincushions that I have, 85 or almost half of them have words or numbers beaded on them. 15 have NIAGARA FALLS or FROM NIAGARA FALLS, 5 have MONTREAL, and there is 1 each of CAUGHNAWAGA, TUPPER LAKE NY, and SALAMANCA. NIAGARA FALLS appears with a date 10 times. STATE FAIR or N.Y.S. FAIR appears with a date 12 times. CANADA with a date appears once. There are two examples of WITH LOVE and a date. 23 hearts have a date only; the dates range from 1900 to 2000.
Some hearts have words or phrases. The ones in my collection are THINK OF ME, LOVE, FRIEND, SMILE DEAR, REMEMBER ME, I LOVE YOU, MOTHER, DEAR MOTHER, DEAR FATHER, FAIR, and MERRY CHRISTMAS.
One reason that NIAGARA FALLS occurs so frequently is that many tourists visited Niagara Falls and purchased pincushions as souvenirs. By 1850 Niagara Falls was visited by 60,000 people each year. Because the Falls were seen as displaying the grandeur of nature and Indians were identified with nature, it was natural to want a souvenir made by an Indian artist. Because many honeymooners visit the Falls they often buy souvenirs with romantic words. Thousands of tourists took home pieces of Niagara Falls beadwork. In this manner Niagara Falls beadwork spread all over North America and western Europe.
There is another explanation for the fact that Iroquois beadwork is showing up on eBay from many diverse geographical locations. In the late 19th century and early 20th century there were several Mohawk wild west and medicine shows that traveled extensively throughout North America and Europe. They not only wore outfits ornamented with Mohawk beadwork, they also carried beadwork with them to sell while they demonstrated beadwork at their stops.
The most common pincushion heart form began around 1890, featuring a leaf in each of the top lobes with the tip of the leaves toward the center. Sometimes the leaves are replaced with balls. Purple velvet is a favorite cloth in these hearts. Tan velvet and hot pink cloth were also used frequently. Often there is a date or design in the center of the heart. The larger the heart, the larger the design in the center and the more elaborate the loops along the bottom of the heart. The hearts that feature clear beads and clear bead handles and fringes were made before World War I. Those with white edging beads, a white or multicolored hanger, and multicolored bottom loops were made after World War I. Later pieces are more likely to have cord hangers than hangers made of beads. Mohawk beadworkers made this style of heart.
The trilobe hearts are the largest of all the pincushions and can measure as much as 13” x 12”. Like the small hearts, the large trilobes feature leaves across the top. They often have raised balls with large loops hanging from their centers. 1910 is a common date on these trilobes.
Large trilobe hearts often have very fanciful designs. They feature brightly colored animals in the checkerboard pattern of light and dark adjacent beads characteristic of Kahnawake beadwork. Two large trilobe hearts have very unusual designs. One shows a green cow and the other shows an Indian man playing a flute. He has feathers in his hair. There are two owls on a branch and a large bird holding three balls or berries all crowded on this unique piece.
Niagara trilobes are smaller, have no large animals, and usually have NIAGARA FALLS printed on the center.
The second most recognizable Iroquois pincushion form is the rectangular pincushion with purple velvet. Like the hearts, leaves are an important motif on purple pincushions. Each pincushion features a frame of leaves on the four sides. Usually every other leaf is clear and the others are blue, green, gold, and red. Sometimes only half of the leaves are colored. The placement of the colored leaves is usually symmetrical. Sometimes, instead of leaves, the corners have circles filled with horizontal tubular beads.
Most purple pillow pincushions feature one or two birds made of clear beads on the purple velvet background. They are often accompanied with a floral motif of leaves and berries, sometimes with an urn, almost all in clear beads but some are highlighted in blue, green, gold, or red beads. They were made from the 1870s through the first decade of the 20th century. See the back cover for a variety of purple pillow pincushions.
Not all pincushions of this type are made with purple velvet; some have green, blue, red, or tan velvet fronts. Second to purple, the tan pincushions are most common. They usually feature an attractive raised floral motif that is not common on the purple ones. The tan velvet pincushions are so distinctly similar that they may have been made by the same sewer.
Many other pincushions were made with purple velvet. See the picture on page 11 for many different purple pincushions. Crystal clear beads sparkle against the purple and magenta velvet.
Often sequins, held down with a single bead, are added to open areas on the front of pincushions. Sometimes gold or silver paper backing behind a beaded motif is used to add glimmer to a piece. Sequins are more common to Mohawk pieces than to Niagara pieces.
Those cut tubular beads that often hang from loops on the bottom of a piece or form the center of leaves are thought to have been made in a Bohemian factory that was closed in 1917. So you rarely see them on pieces made after WWI. But a cache of them was recently found so that they will appear on 21st century pieces.
What is the Victorian fixation with boots? Glass boots, ceramic boots, and Iroquois beaded boots are common. Iroquois beadworkers started making boot shaped pincushions in the 1870s or 80s. By the 1890s boots were close to a foot tall and half a foot wide and loaded down with beads. Many of the larger ones have a pocket in the top whose function is unknown. Perhaps they hung on a dressing room wall as a brush or comb holder. Maybe they held sewing supplies.
The very fancy late 19th century boots can be divided into three very different styles: raised flowers (often with the salt and pepper or checkerboard technique with alternating dark and light beads,) raised flowers with many beaded loops hanging from them, and flowers filled with tubular beads laying flat in rows.
Simpler boots are being made now and are sold at the State Fair and Niagara Falls. Out of 116 boots in the collection 48 have words or dates on them. There are 11 with NIAGARA FALLS with a date, 12 with just NIAGARA FALLS or FROM NIAGARA FALLS, and one that has FROM NIAGARA FALLS 1908, the oldest dated one. 6 have STATE FAIR or N.Y.S. FAIR with or without a date. 4 have only dates (1909, 1937, 1949, 1980.) 1949 appears on five boots; a very good year. As for words, the following appear: LOVE, HONEY, CAUGHNAWAGA, MONTREAL, and MT CLEMENS.
Another popular pincushion shape is the multilobed form with 4, 5, 6, 8 or 10 lobes. Of 240 pincushions 10 are 5 lobed, 45 are 6 lobed, 13 are 8 lobed, and 1 is 10 lobed. The stars have pointed lobes. 17 are shaped like 5 pointed stars and 9 have 6 points. 53 pincushions are either square or 4 lobed. Two square ones have SARATOGA, one with a 1898 date. Beaded on them are: LOVE, TORONTO, STATE FAIR, SOUVENIR, BROCKTON FAIR, TO MOTHER, NIAGARA FALLS, FROM NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y.S. FAIR, AMMA, MONTREAL, MY HONEY, BANFF, DEAR MOTHER, CANADA, MOTHER DEAR, QUEBEC CANADA, AND CAUGHNAWAGA. One interesting 6 lobed pincushion has 1928 TORONTO EXHIBITION SOUVENIR where the beader did not have room for all the letters so TORONTO overlaps EXHIBITION
Crossed American flags appear on all shapes of Iroquois beadwork. Flags appear on pieces that were made in the late 19th century and the first three decades of the 20th century and again since September, 2001.
Birds and strawberries are the only forms of Iroquois pincushions in the round. Strawberries date to the mid 19th century and were filled with emery used to polish needles. They were meant to hang and usually have 3 loops hanging from the bottom. Recent strawberries are rarely filled with emery.
Birds were first made in the 1890s. They are made in two basic forms; one with the wings held down and one with the wings held up. The first type often has the date or the word BIRD beaded under the tail; these are made by Mohawk sewers. The others, which infrequently incorporate a date or NIAGARA FALLS beaded on them, are made by Tuscarora sewers. Sometimes Niagara birds are flat instead of round.
A bird is perched on top of the tree of life made by Sophronia Thompson. Beaded trees with twisted branches are very rare. Also rare are leg-shaped pincushions and pincushions shaped like small uphostered chairs.
Needle cases are portable pincushions with a cover. They open like a book to show a padded area used for needles or pins. Often needle cases are very ornate. The ones made in the 1870s and 80s are encrusted with crystal beads. They, like the “clamshell” shaped needle cases, often have a bird on one side and FROM NIAGARA FALLS on the other.
Related to them are calling cardholders that are usually trifolds and delicately beaded. Cardholders sometimes incorporated pincushions so they are combination needle/pin holders and card holders.
Iroquois pincushions can be divided into styles or types. The pincushions in each type share one or more traits or characteristics that other pincushions do not have. Defining the types and identifying their makers is an ongoing study, but the following are 24 preliminary types: