Within My Teaching Box – pins

In my teaching box I have several objects from my grandfather’s business. You’ve already seen a dress. Now you can see a paper of pins. The dress was uncommon – it may never have been made commercially. The pins are common. This makes uncommonly useful for teaching.

Open with care…

It’s usually easier to get the big things right in a novel. When Australia was given its independence from the UK there are some things that can be ticked off with ease. Queen Victoria was on the throne, for instance. The vacuum cleaner was brand new and mechanical inventions were celebrated. The White Australia Policy was introduced into Australia, and, as a anthropological historian once pointed out to me, the Japanese were Honorary White and Jews (all Jews) were honorary Black.

It would be easy to say that these things are well-known because they left lasting impressions. Which they did. Australia is still ruled by a queen. Vacuum cleaners are everywhere and we celebrate inventions, but electronic is more fun than straight electric. And Jews in Australia are what I call off-White (we’re White until it’s convenient for mainstream Australians for us not to be).

The thing is that sewing pins also leave lasting impressions. Australian culture includes a great deal of sewing. A friend had a major birthday recently and a perfectly acceptable gift was an exceptionally nice piece of fabric in her favourite colour.

The problem is (for writers) that it’s easy to look up the name of a ruler and find out the political system. It’s easy enough (although not as easy) to find out what gadgets are used around the home. There are major museums that specialise in this latter, Powerhouse in Sydney, for instance. It is, however, almost impossible to find accurate cultural assessments of the relative favouring or other of specific groups in Australia. We’re far more comfortable with analysing using the words of others and the culture of others. We’re not at all comfortable with complex cultures or too many cultural variants in our minorities. Two ends of a complex spectrum: some things are easy for writers to find out and some things require a deep breath and a lot of work to reach a decent understanding.

So where do the pins fit in?

For writers, the ordinary and everyday is what gives flavour to a work. Frying an egg, for example, fills a character’s immediate needs but also gives the reader an instant ‘feel for the place and time. My father wanted a coal stove when I  as a child (even though electricity was standard) because he lived in a major coal-producing state and he liked the thought of it burning always, giving hot water and… the capacity to fry that egg at any time. That was his official reason. He wanted a fried egg when he was hungry.

I still don’t know why he thought any of this was a good idea. As small children my sisters and I carried in the buckets of black coal. We had to navigate soot and spiders and lurking cats. And when the temperatures soared in summer, the kitchen and dining room were uninhabitable.

Suburban living is often described as flat and full of typical moments, but something like that stove and its gaping maw can bring even the most placid and standard family life alive on the page. No two families live precisely the same, which makes even the dullest suburb potentially useful for a fiction writer.

But the pins?


One of the problems many authors face (especially but not only new writers) is the tendency to fill gaps with things they knew. One of my novels (Ms Cellophane) has a character who is a fine seamstress and this is her hobby. How her sewing is set up in the home, what tools she uses, what clothes she makes… all of these bring her character to life. I don’t thrust long explanations in the novel: I try to find the most accurate description.

Pins help. Ms Cellophane is a near-contemporary novel, so my character would have used a wheel of pins, all thrust neatly into plastic. Fifty years earlier, she would have used the type of paper you see here. If she had lived in the Middle Ages, the pins would have looked more like this.

Medieval pins (modern copy)

These two pins are modern copies of Medieval originals. They’re a bit different to modern pins (easier to use, a bit thicker, different metal, rounder head) but it’s still possible to describe a lot of sewing and the pins will be accurate. The storage of the pins, however, has changed a lot over the years. A pincushion, a paper, a card, a plastic wheel, or even loose pins: these things can bring a novel to life.

The pins themselves annoy my students, for they fall out of the paper and hide. This is perfectly good telling detail in the right novel, and another reason that paper goes to some classes.

So many students want Queen Victoria in a novel and will work on understanding a country’s racism in order to portray their characters better. Getting them to understand the importance of pins… that’s the tricky bit.


About Gillian Polack

Gillian Polack is a historian as well as a fiction writer, which means that history is likely to creep into her blogposts. She is also Australian, a foodie, and has a strong love of things ranging from chocolate to folk dance. All her jokes are good jokes, even the ones that aren't funny at all.


Within My Teaching Box – pins — 7 Comments

  1. That pin paper looks a lot like what I stick most of my needles in, that is original for at least some of them. I didn’t know you used to buy pins that way as well. When you talked about paper and pins I assumed it was the big long rolls of paper with pins in them, so the picture was a surprise. I would find using pins in paper annoying and never put them back!

    (My pins are in a old mint tin or attached to the large magnet I keep by the sewing machine. My mother taught me to only buy magnetic pins–easier to find/pick up when you drop them and when pulling from fabric you can toss close to the magnet and it’ll grab them.)

    • We did the same! We used an old tin to store the pins and we had a magnet in the sewing area to help locate missing ones. Our excuse was the cats… we didn’t want them to hurt themselves. We really didn’t need an excuse, though: magnets are so handy for finding lost pins.

      I’m now trying to remember if our tin was a mint tin. I remember it had a pale blue top and was about four inches long. It might’ve been mints or it might’ve been lozenges for sore throats.

  2. “I’ll give you a paper of pins/if that’s the way our love begins”

    That song exists in many versions and is variously said to come from Britain, the US, and Ireland so it must be reasonably old but I haven’t found a date for when it was first recorded.

    • That song is an excellent example of how pins are handy at bringing peoples’ lives to life. I’d forgotten it! Thank you 🙂

      Papers of pins go back to early industrial England, as far as I know. I need to find out more, don’t i!

      • That was easy. The phrase “papers of pins” doesn’t appear in printed works that have been digitalised until 1808. That’s about 50 years later than I expected!!

        The singular “paper of pins” is 1763, though.