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Holmes’ Needle Case

Georgia Kerby, Exhibitions Curator

Small, multi-use tools are the epitome of human ingenuity and skill. Gizmos like the pocket knife make our lives much easier in certain situations and thus stick around through time. Many of these contraptions can be found in Whangarei Museum and today’s multi-function gadget is a small wooden ‘sewing help’ or needle case donated to Whangarei Museum in 1969 by Miss K. Holmes.

The kit is contained in an ornately carved wooden container, standing 13 cm tall decorated with leaves and berries. Its size would have been perfect for tucking away in a larger sewing chest as well as in luggage for travelling. Much like travelling sewing kits today, our wooden tube could carry the essentials for some quick mending on the go.

The top opens to reveal the little treasures of a thimble resting on top of a spool holding three types of thread in basic colours- fawn, black and white. Ingeniously the knob at the top pops off revealing a small hole for thread to wind through. Evidently the case had been passed through the family and reused as the original thimble which likely would have been made from metal or celluloid has been replaced with a garish red plastic one before its donation to the museum in the 1960s. Opening up again like a Russian doll the top of the spool can be removed to reveal a space for keeping needles.

Sewing cases like this one are referred to as an etui or a sewing necessaire. Some were made in very specific shapes for housing items such as thimbles and small scissors, or were novelty shapes such as owls and walnuts. A necessaire was usually bigger and sat on a table top, while an etui was a smaller portable case for holding personal items like sewing tools or perfume bottles. European etui were made from mother of pearl shell, tortoiseshell, silver, bone and porcelain as well as carved wood and often ornately decorated. The style and form of Miss Holmes’ etui is very similar to German cases made from carved wood. While the origins of this case cannot be confirmed, it is safe to say it is European in origin and likely dating to the mid-late 1800s.

The Holmes family originated in Worcestershire, England. The donor, Miss K. Holmes, was the daughter of James E. Holmes who was Whangarei’s Mayor from 1925 to 1928. As a teenager, James travelled to colonial New Zealand aboard the sailing ship Inverallan. In 1876 at the age of 19 James set out from Auckland to Mangonui, but eventually turned south to Whangarei. He met and married his wife Marry D’Ath on a return trip back to England, before settling down in Whangarei and having three daughters around the turn of the 21st century.

Unfortunately little information has been passed on to Whangarei Museum with the large Holmes Family collection but I imagine K. Holmes inherited the sewing helper from her mother and used it throughout her time in Whangarei and, later, Taumarunui. In 1913 Miss K. Holmes won a prize at an Agricultural Show held at Kensington Park. She entered the under 16 group and won for her darned socks. Surely this thimble case was the instrument to help her with her perfect darning.