Sewing Bird

Sewing Bird

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Sewing bird or clamp; Metal, Perhaps silver-plated; velvet-covered cushions atop the bird and on the clamp. Bird measures 3.5433" from beak to tail. Catalog #T15758. Color Transparency #78-1548 shows 24 of the over 500 sewing clamps in the Textile Collection; this clamp is second from the left in the third row down. A sewing bird is a table clamp that supports a bird on its top. The lower body of the bird is stationary while the upper body is hinged, and there is a spring in the tail. When the upper and lower tail ends are pinched together, the beak opens, allowing the edge of a fabric to be placed in it. When the tail is released, the beak closes on the fabric, holding it securely while a sewer pulls it taut for stitching a hem or seam. This bird is marked "Patented Feb. 15, 1853," the date of the first American sewing-bird Letters Patent, which was granted to Charles Waterman of Meridan, Connecticut, for a "feathered bird upon the wing, bearing a burden upon its back." The burden is an emery ball. Before the patent, Waterman was already selling the clamps successfully when an advertisement appeared in the Hartford Times of June 5, 1852, showing two women on opposite sides of a table. The one without a sewing bird is bent over her work in an unhealthy posture, while the woman using a sewing bird is upright, showing the clamp's "health preserving property." According to Waterman's daughter, "he wanted to make sewing a little easier for the ladies." The Waterman bird was produced for well into the 20th century and variations in the design, as well as painted and plated versions, came and went. Catalog #2004.0116.1 is a mid-19th century daguerreotype of a mother and her daughter, the latter holding a sewing bird like this one, with an emery on top of the bird and a pincushion on the front of the clamp below the bird.
Currently not on view
Object Name
sewing clamp
Date made
3rd quarter, 19th century
patent date
place made
United States: Connecticut
Physical Description
silver-plate? (overall material)
fabric, velvet (overall material)
bird, beak to tail: 9 cm; 3 9/16 in
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Dr. Manton Copeland
See more items in
Cultural and Community Life: Textiles
Industry & Manufacturing
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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My Mother-in-Law collected sewing birds in the 40 years I had the pleasure of being her daughter-in-law. When she passed away I inherited her collection. They are beautiful and so many different variations. We have a special walnut display in the shape of a tree that we display them on and have had so many compliments about the collection. They are rare to find now and so interesting to see people interested in them.
What a joy to find kindred spirits in both contemporary literature and sewing collectables! I found my way here by following the same Kingsolver path. Now I long to own one of these rare birds to place alongside my family collection of darning eggs. [*smiling and waving to Sharon and Catherine!*]
I am just now reading Unsheltered and found my way here as a result of wondering what a sewing bird is, as mentioned in the Kingsolver book. It's great to see others drawn in by the same curiosity. As a quilter, I'm surprised I haven't run across these before, but even so, am glad to have made the discovery. I'm now going to seek one out to add to my sewing room.
I, too, am reading Barbara Kingsolver's 2018 book Unsheltered. I hilight as I read and then research for answers. As a quilter and seamstress, I had never heard of a "sewing bird". I could use one of these in this era to assist with hemming! Thank you for sharing the beautiful collection and the associated information. One of the joys in reading is acquiring knowledge and this was a "happy accident."
Barbara Kingsolver mentions a sewing bird in her 2018 book Unsheltered. Curious, unfamiliar, I searched & found my way here. Thank you for the photo & information. Delightful & serendipitous, a discovery to me! Beautiful tools are a joy.
I have a sewing bird like the one in the third row, furthest to the right. It is marked Patented FY 15 1853 around the base of the small cup that holds the pin cushion. The back of the bird is painted gold with highlights of dark green and red alternating along the neck, wings, and tail. The underside belly is painted cream or light beige. The eyes are painted red. There is one pin cushion on the bird's back which is a faded burgundy. The clamp has three round holes and it is painted gold. I purchased the sewing bird in an antique shop in Westport, Ontario, Canada. The owner told me she shopped for antiques in England to bring back to her shop and it was one of the items from England. I had to pay $165.00 in Canadian dollars to purchase the sewing bird on Sun. Aug. 8, 2016. It is the only sewing bird I have ever seen and I thought it was a wonderful example with most of its paint still intact.
I have a sewing bird like the second from right in the second row. It is missing the pin cushion in the "bowl " below the bird's breast and the one on the bird's back has lost almost all of it's fabric covering. I can remember my grandmother using it in the early 1940's. There are many wonderful memories attached to it and it will remain in my family.

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