Mary Corbet

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I learned to embroider when I was a kid, when everyone was really into cross stitch (remember the '80s?). Eventually, I migrated to surface embroidery, teaching myself with whatever I could get my hands on...read more

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Treasure Hunt: My Big Adventures with a Pincushion


Amazon Books

It all started on a gloomy winter afternoon, not long after lunch. I was feeling restless. Deep down, I was yearning for an Adventure.

But like a good girl, I betook myself to my studio to work.

Now, I know most people wouldn’t consider embroidering while listening to good music or an audiobook work, and I don’t, really, either. But it is what I do for a living, and there are days when it seems a little less than adventurous.

With the winter sky forcing its grey light through the windows, I sat silently in the half-gloom.

An Adventure! said I to me. You need an Adventure!

Suddenly, the sun broke through the clouds. It’s rays slanted across my work table. With an angel choir swelling into sweet song in the distance, the light glinted on the needles protruding from my Ubiquitous Red Tomato pincushion.

And next to the tomato was a pair of….


Embroidered Needles in a Pincushion

And thus, my Adventure began.

You probably know where this is going, don’t you? This is an adventure wherein we witness the death of a tomato, we discover some hidden treasure, but we encounter a little unexpected secret – and a not-too-pleasant one, at that.

I’ve had this pincushion for years and years. It was inexpensive, it served a purpose. And it really didn’t deserve to die the death it did, because it has done good service.

But I was curious, you see. Last month, when I wrote this article on Life as a Needle in my Studio, some readers commented on the stash of needles they found hidden in their own Red Tomatoes when they took them apart.

As I eyed my Red Tomato, I realized that it, too, could contain hidden treasure. And hidden treasure is always good motivation for setting out on an adventure. It seemed logical – even praiseworthy – to dissect the tomato and see what it would reveal.

My first step was to empty the Red Tomato.

Embroidered Needles in a Pincushion

This I did, sticking all the needles from the cushion into a piece of craft foam nearby.

How proudly they stand! And how serviceable they’ve been!

But I detected a note of sadness in their little eyes. Were they mourning the loss of their home? I assured them of a new home – a better home.

Embroidered Needles in a Pincushion

Utilizing my sweet biology skills that I picked up while dissecting frogs in high school, I made a careful incision in the side of the tomato.

The skin split, revealing a tight inner core of sawdust encased in thin plastic. Nothing adventurous here – this is what I expected.

Undaunted, I plowed ever forward! I broke open the tomato, splitting it completely.

Embroidered Needles in a Pincushion

And there, hidden within the dry sawdust, I spied several needles.

I could have poked and prodded at this point, sifting through the dusty filling with my fingers, but it seemed such a monumental task. I needed a tool!

Embroidered Needles in a Pincushion

Out came the extension magnet. I inserted it into the mess with magnificent results! Sawdust flung far and wide when the needles snapped to the magnet.

I burrowed the magnet deeper and deeper into the heap, ecstatic over each little click as another needle snapped to the magnet’s surface.

What excitement! I was thrilled! I tenderly removed my prickly treasure from the magnet, and leaned closer to inspect my glorious find…

Embroidered Needles in a Pincushion

…when I noticed this.

Now, I’m not a complete “clean freak” – I don’t obsess over cleanness, but I am pretty particular about dirt. I don’t like Dirt in my workroom. I would never willingly invite Dirt into my workroom – or my house, for that matter.

So you can imagine my surprise. Dirt in my pincushion?

And what type of dirt was this?

In fact, was it even dirt? It looked like dirt, but I can think of some other things it could be, too.

All kinds of possibilities went through my mind. After all, this was sawdust from who-knows-where, and this was earthy looking stuff from who-knows-where.

First (much to my embarrassment to admit), I did smell it.

It smelled like….dirt.

Then I smudged it between two fingers, and in fact, it was muddy, like a damp, soft dirt, a little clayish.

I sifted through the sawdust, rubbing it through my fingers, and discovered that the pincushion actually had a lot of dirt in it.

I don’t know why this troubled me so much, but it did. My needles were burrowing into a home of sawdust and damp dirt.


It was at that point that I rejuvenated my determination to situate my needles in a New Home. A Better Home. A Homemade Home.

Embroidered Needles in a Pincushion

The treasure yielded by the pincushion was not hugely significant – 26 needles, about six of which were broken, bent, or mutilated; all of which were dirty and needed a good cleaning.

Embroidered Needles in a Pincushion

Here they are, joining their companions, ready to work again.

Although I didn’t find many dozens of needles inside the tomato, I did find the unexpected: Dirt.

The Discovery of Dirt inflamed a desire to make my own pincushion, with materials I can control – materials that are good for my needles.

And thus ended my Adventure. It ended successfully, with a clear plan for the future.

And I’ll share that plan with you some day soon!


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(63) Comments

  1. Now, that worries me. I might have to go home and do the same with my very old tomato too. I’ve also got a relatively new one – I wonder if that is full of dirt as well πŸ™

  2. I’ve done this twice before with tomatoes! Since I’m a seamstress also it would unearth loads of pins too. The fabric on the tomatoes, (if you look at it carefully, isn’t a very tight weave….

  3. The dirt looks more like compost. It could be that the “dirt” is actually partially decomposed saw-dust “dust”. When they make saw-dust there is still “dust” (not the bigger visible chunks)and I have no doubt that it still winds up inside those cushions, that is why they use plastic inside, to keep the dust from escaping out the fabric weave. Even “dust free” cat litter has dust in it. I mean, I am not sure, but I did take a woodshop class in 7th grade and there was tons of that “dirt” (looked the same) in between the floor tiles and nooks and crannies of the machinery that they could NEVER get rid of because it was just weensy-shmeensy saw-dust-dust. Yes, that stuff smelled like dirt when we swept/cleaned it up, because some dirt is just that, decomposed tree materials. Here, our back-yard dirt is heavy clay and the dust smells like a pottery class dust-pan. We have to add two bags of dirt and two bags of manure every year into our veggie garden and the bagged dirt we add looks like that and it came from the contents of cities “green waste” bin collection. The green waste bins are branches etc from people pruning trees and roses etc. I can’t imagine that saw-dust dust takes incredibly long to decompose and many of those tomatoes have done their service and are old. I imagine that tomatoes of every manufacturer end up like that after a couple of decades. πŸ™‚ Just my two cents. πŸ™‚

  4. Dear Mary, What a laugh you gave me this morning.My mother was a seamstress and a furrier and when she passed away at 93, I inherited her sewing accessories and the tomato was already well used by then so I am a little scares to look inside…maybe, well maybe later.You really warmed up my morning,(-23 Celcius, not counting the wind). Good day to you and I am looking forward to see what masterpiece you will come up with.

  5. I had a similar experience with pins and needles when I emptied an old pin cushion recently too. There were a number stuck inside and I had to push the cushion inwards and use tweezers to grab them and pull them out. Not as many as got lost in yours, but a few. =)

    I’m not making a new one though, as I don’t use one. This was actually one I inherited and chances are those needles were never mine! LOL! I just like to keep my needle collection clean, tidy and safe in a needlecase/book. A homemade, embroidered one, of course!

  6. There is something rather charming about this story. The adventure … the discovery … the inspired use of a magnet … the banishment of dirt … and the gleaming platoon of needles ready once again for active service! Delightful! πŸ™‚

  7. Mary,

    Did you ever read the ‘Nate the Great’ books for kids? What is mundane to adults can still be an adventure for those who haven’t done it before.

    Thank you for taking us on a “Mary the Great’ adventure, to somewhere I haven’t been before.

    PS — did the ‘dirt’ stick to the magnet after you brushed it off? I wondered whether it might be magnetic: little bits of old needles. If not, I’m sure my needles have had bits of dirt and oil on them when I stick them in my pincushion. It’s not a tomato, but an old candlewicking project filled with fiberfill. And I’m sure it has some ‘secrets’ of its own!


  8. Some days, people look at their lives and lament, “so this is what life has brought me”. After reading your blog daily and looking at my life, i gleefully think, “so this is what life has brought me!”. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge, experiences, humor and fun embroidery stuff with all us out here in cyber land. I appreciate your time, work, artistic ability and joyful outlook on life. I just can’t wait to follow you on the pin cushion adventure….

  9. Good morning Mary,

    I laughed out loud reading the unfortunate fate of your tomato! Agree that most probably the saw dust started composting. Actually, it is comforting to know that in the end organic material turns to dirt.



  10. Thank you for this eye opening article!! I too have lost needles into my tomato, and was thinking of opening it. Since it is very old I was just about to go buy a new tomato. Now… rethinking that, and definitely not going to open my old one! Looking forward to your next adventure!!

  11. Hi Mary,
    You are a delight! I laughed out loud a few times reading this post –
    such a nice way to start the week! But now I wonder – if dirt was in the
    tomato, what’s Really in the strawberry?

  12. My grandmother’s tomato revealed 70+ needles and lots of dust! The magnet trick helped avoid lots of finger sticks. A firm wool ball is now my favorite pin cushion. I do lose needles in it and they won’t be easy to retrieve as the wool ball is felted…maybe will just have to bury the whole ball one day.

  13. Sawdust comes from cutting wood, probably from cabinet shops that sell off the contents of their vacuum systems.

    If they used the vacuum hoses on the tools and floors at the end of the day, it could include quite a bit more than sawdust.

  14. Dear Mary

    Well I had to laugh at your introduction to your interesting adventure and what an adventure. it’s a good job you dissected the tomato not only to find more needles, but to realise how dirty those tomato’s are inside. I’ve have one and I wondering if I should continue to use it now that you have enlightened us on the making of these pincushions. Please, Please hurry and show us how you will go about making your own clean pincushion, I can’t wait. Thanks so much for this titillating article on the adventure of who killed the Tomato and for sharing your photos on the dissected Tomato.

    Regards Anita Simmance

  15. Wow you really had a whole needleshop hidden in your tomato! Dirt probably clung to some of the wood shavings but it is such a minute amount. Wood isn’t the best thing for needles, though it is great for rustic stuffing material. Cannot WAIT to see what you come up with, Mary – as I am a HUGE pincushion lover! (I sent you a pic of one I made) Thanks for the humorous post!

  16. Have you considered that your magnet has done its magnet function by attracting tiny bits of worn off metal of the needles? As far as the damp referred to, has Mr Tom suffered a spill lately? Just an observation.

  17. Oh, my, Mary…ha ha ha ha…

    I just did one of those “seniors often have flashback” moments that was triggered when I read your words, “Utilizing my sweet biology skills that I picked up while dissecting frogs in high school”… and suddenly, ha ha ha ha, I had that flashback…and it was me…I was back in my Biology class and I was standing over a frog and… and… I was picking up the knife… and… and…yuk!

    Ok…I’m back in the present…the flashback is gone! Whew! You really gave me a good laugh this morning! ha ha ha ha

    1. Well, Bonnie, I’ll just ‘fess up….I positively hated dissecting when I was in high school. I’m not sure I have any sweet dissecting skills, come to think of it! I remember flinging the first frog I tackled off the little tack board thingy, and it landed with a smack on the floor. It all went downhill from there.

  18. Hi Mary –
    Piecework Magazine is having their annual pincushion contest; the information is in the current issue. I tried to find a link for you, but
    couldn’t – since you will be making a pincushion anyway, if you want to enter the contest, you could let your pincushion-imagination run wild!

  19. For the pincushion by my sewing machine, I have a lovely ball of wool roving that I got at a local craft fair and which even matches the color scheme of the room. It is eminently “squishable” so I never lose needles for very long, and the small amount of lanolin left in the wool helps keep everything from rusting.

    Mother always had a long, rectangular pincushion home made by her sewing machine. It was also stuffed with sawdust, but the sawdust came from Daddy’s workshop so there would have been nothing unexpected in it. If you know someone who has a woodworking hobby, that’s the place to get sawdust. But do make sure there’s only wood in it, not any plywood or MDF (medium density fiberboard), as that would put resins and glues in with the wood.

  20. I have some that are ancient that I don’t want to know what is composting inside, but I would also like to share that Simplicity pattern 1554 gives you a pattern for three different sizes of the traditional tomato pin cushion. One of my sewing students has made this and they really look like tomatoes when finished. You can use up your leftover fabrics and treads to make them. Poly-fil or leftover threads and selvages, as well as sand can be used to fill them. Very fine sand will sharpen your needles, just like the strawberry emory.

  21. I’ve used magnetic pincushions for years for sewing and quilting BUT, I have a pincushion/ort bag thingy I made from a kit by my stitching nest and am now wondering what’s really inside it! It’s less than 10 years old, but still. I also use colored glass head straight pins to easily see them and they don’t get “lost”.
    There was a sewing show on this weekend with some super cute wool felt appliquΓ© and embroidered pincushions. Now I want to make some!

    1. Funny, Bobbi! I guess “Oklahoma” has a better ring to it, since it has four syllables. But ….. I’m a Kansas girl!! I take no umbrage, though, because I like Oklahoma. If, however, I were from Texas, I’d probably be a little more emphatic. πŸ™‚

  22. Thank you for taking us along with you on your adventure! It was a fun start to the gloomy winter morning. I don’t care for big pin cushions; invariably I stick myself with those buried needles. But I do use a really small one that is approx. 1.5 inches across. (purchased from Nordic Needle http://www.nordicneedle.com/prod/380-556-0001.html)

    It’s a small wadded up ball of wool stuck into a wood disk/cup. The perfect size to park my current needle/s while I’m working. It’s handy, and I and drop it into my bag when I go to a class, etc.

  23. My tomato turned into a cat toy soon after purchase…I don’t even know where it is now. And with cats pins and needles must be kept under strict control.

    Add to that type 2 diabetes and “foot fear” — I now count out what pins I need, write it on a sticky note, put it on the bottom of the magnetic pin dish, keep count, and put them back after I am done. Needles are kept track of strictly, too.

    These cats will eat ANYTHING.

  24. Thanks for this, Mary. I have one of those tomatoes lurking upstairs in my sewing tin. I haven’t used it for years, probably bought it in 1965, and god knows what might be breeding in there – in the closed tin – in the dark closet.

    I’ve recently taken up needlepoint again after 40 years and I’m taking a lot of pleasure in being a newbie, discovering new tools, learning from people like you about things like the hidden contents of sawdust-filled red tomatoes.

    Looking forward to reading more.

  25. Dirt?!!!! Yeeeeewwwww!! That’s just plain disgusting. Why would the makers ever think that dirt was a good thing for needles? (btw – do you have any experience/thoughts about using ground walnut shells in pincushions?)

  26. That was fun. Was the dirt actually clinging to the magnet or just smashed on there? If it was clinging, then it must be metallic to some degree. Hmm.

    I used to have a tomato but it died, got lost, ran away years ago. Now my husband and I have our home made biscornus. They’re cute, squishy and less likely to roll off the end table while we stitch and bang around with floss.

    I’m anxious to see how you make yours.

  27. I enjoyed today’s post, Mrs. Corbet! lol. Rather like a short adventure tale πŸ˜‰ Very funny. I only use my pincushion for sewing pins, never needles. (because needles get lost inside them as yours did)
    But dirt in the pincushion?
    I’m going to agree with Linda and RMW. Maybe the sawdust started to compost, and that’s what the dirt is. Sure is unpleasant to think about, though.

  28. Somehow Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody snuck into my mind as I read about your adventure! All the fun and joy of discovering the long lost needles – only to be dashed by the dirt scented dirt! Did you throw yourself prostrate to the ground, writhing in agony? Loved your story! I remember my Mom had a larger-than-a-tomato pincushion and it was kind of squatty. It had 8 or 10 pockets surrounding the cushion where a horizontal seam would be. You could put spools of thread into the pockets, joining them all together by running a string through the holes in the spools. Thanks for brightening my day – Nancy

  29. Oh dear. Oh dear. Now I am a tad perturbed as well – I haven’t read all the comments but I guess we all have a tomato or two and I guess we are all having the same sort of reaction. Yuck!!!

    Question: have you dismembered the strawberry yet? And if so, with what results?

    Methinks it may be time to divest myself of the tomato. To me, this story is doubly troubling as tomatoes are my favourite fruit/vegetable.

  30. Great article, I loved it! I don’t use the tomatoes on purpose anymore. I have made my own pincushions with thread catchers attached. I filled my pincushions with crushed walnut shells.

  31. It can’t be DAMP dirt. To be damp after some years is ridiculous, but it must be something, oil perhaps, from the sawmill, mixed in with the dirt and the sawdust from sweeping the floor.

    Whatever it is, we wouldn’t want it. I have a biscornu that I use for a pincushion, stuffed with the scraps of the fabric. Not as round and large as a tomato, but I know what is in it.

  32. Interesting exploration, Mary!

    I don’t use tomatoes any more – too easy to loose needles and small-headed pins. I have one of Mom’s (or Grandmother’s?) tomatoes and it’s so old and dried out it crunches when squeezed. It now resides in a jar with some other old non-usable sewing items of hers, like stretched out tape measure, bent ruler, old seam ripper.

  33. Quite an adventure!! I’m thinking of a new pin cushion too for some time, with emery to helps keep the needle sharp. I tried to find that emery stuff, but can’t find it online nor in store. Do you know if it is available somewhere?

  34. Hi Mary,

    Somehow I knew when you posted about your tomato awhile ago, that it was not the end of hearing about it. Now I know this is the end of the tomato, but not the story. Too funny! I’d like to send you a pincushion – and I promise it will be stuffed with something better than sawdust and dirt!

  35. You mentioned cleaning your needles. Any special method?
    An aside question: How do you sort your needles back into their orginal types? example: straw vs applique versus crewel

    1. Hi, Diana – I have a strawberry filled with emery, and I ran the needles through there, and just wiped them off. I didn’t re-sort them – not yet, anyway. I might later, when I’m in a sorting mood!

  36. I enjoy making pincushions and have been making biscornus for some time. People even buy them. Your site has been amazing at helping me perfect my embroidery techniques. Thank you so much!

  37. I read most of the posts and agree that dirt isnt really magnetic. I would tend toward oil and filings. Since you use an emery strawberry (which I asked my aunt to make for me – she sent 30+ of them)you might consider the oil, find grit and filings could be the offender.
    This said, I went on a similar ‘make the perfect pincushion’ lately. I made a wrist pincushion with a plastic barrier so that the needles cant poke me (https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10152625678987805.1073741858.301756717804&type=1)Since I also need one for ‘loaded’ needles waiting for use I am making one from a squat pint canning jar. No pictures yet because I’ve not embellished but I like the weight and stability of it plus I keep my strawberry inside for easy access. (Please feel free to remove link if it shouldn’t be here)

  38. It’s 5:44 AM here in southern California and I should have gone to bed before reading about your pincushion dirt.

    What has occurred to me, even though I have pockets of absolute neat and clean, the rest of my home has now been shown to me — I live in a pincushion.


  39. In researching pin cushions and organizing threaded needles, I came across this article. Now my inquiring mind wants to know. How did you resolve your pin cushion dilemma?

  40. When I was a little girl I would push all the pins and needles into Mom’s tomato. It was oddly satisfying to watch them disappear into the depths. Remembering this, I decided to dissect the poor tomato and reclaim the booty. Yes, it too was full of sawdust but imagine my dismay when much of my loot was too rusty to salvage! I imagine the humidity got to them over the last 40+ years. I wonder how much of your compost was rust?

  41. I use a “Magic Eraser” as a pin cushion. It’s inexpensive and reusable. It keeps my needles and pins clean and sharp.

  42. WHAT???!!!! Dirt in there is a huge surprise to me. Good reason to make pincushions at home! I adore pin cushions and needle books. I haven’t counted how many I have, but there are many, and all are handmade!

  43. I just read this article about hidden treasures. I too, have a hidden treasures story! I was given a teapot pin cushion after I helped a high school theater department with their costumes for a performance of Beauty and the Beast (with my proudest moment making Mrs. Potts skirt a complete sphere!). I love that pin cushion. My puppy had started to chew the bottom (and stopped, I’m sure when he got stuck) and kind of mutilated it. I was determined to save the teapot. I cut the piping and bottom off and proceeded to remove all of the stuffing, very carefully mind you. Inside this little teapot, were 58 needles. I was AMAZED at the number. I have to say, gladly, that I did not find dirt. After the needle removal, I replaced the stuffing and hot glued the bottom of the pot, tucking it into a mason jar lid. Perfect fix, and now it doesn’t tip over!!
    Question though, your tomato was filled with sawdust, mine was filled with polyfill fluff. Is there an advantage to the sawdust? Keep needles sharper maybe. Just curious. THANKS

  44. your pincushion dirt was magnetic
    I’m thinking that it is debris scraped off of pins and needles. Rust, metal flakes, things like that.
    your pins and needles may have been “cleaned” somewhat, by being plunged into the pincushion.

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