Pins are such tiny objects and yet so prevalent in superstition, folklore and witchcraft. After re-reading Roszika Parker’s The Subversive Stitch I began to wonder if the little pin’s starring role was due to its association to stitching, making and sewing and therefore something that most women, up until the middle of last century at least, would have had at home and would have used regularly. It’s tiny, but pointed and sharp and can draw blood, so could be seen as an instrument of attack or defence. It can also hold things together, and once removed, make things become separate. It can pierce and catch, both literally and symbolically, and can be easily hidden or carried.
In dressmaking folklore pins can be seen as both lucky and unlucky, or even portentous. It is the black headed pins that are traditionally seen as unlucky, so you should never fit a dress with black pins, or use black pins when trying on a new dress. Equally, never pick a black pin up and certainly don’t put a black pin in a child’s dress as this is seen as a sign of death.
With regards to picking pins up, “See a pin and pick it up, all the day you’ll have good luck” only applies if you pick the pin up by the head and not the point. Some even say that it’s only lucky if you pick it up just as you get out of bed.
Never stain a wedding dress with blood from a pricked finger and if you are pricked by a pin, keep a sharp eye on your lover or you may lose them. However, breaking a pin on yourself is good luck and breaking a needle while sewing a garment brings good luck to the wearer.
There is particular emphasis in pin folklore on pins and weddings. If you accidentally pin a new garment on to a customer’s own clothes when fitting, a year will pass until their marriage, or two years if two pins are attached and so on. If a person habitually carries a supply of pins on their person they will never marry and if a man uses safety pins to hold his clothes together, he will never marry either. However, a pin taken from a bride’s wedding dress is said to be lucky and Steve Roud, in The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland recounts this tale:
“A dressmaker of her acquaintance always keeps the pins she uses when making a wedding dress and gives them to her friends for use in picking out horses before betting in a horse race”
Unallocated folk-lore 1962
Beware of giving or lending pins, because if you accept a pin from a witch you would be in her power. One might suppose that this links with the idea that if a witch draws your blood she has control over you.
“This very old woman had the reputation of a witch. There was not a maid in the parish that would take a pin of her, though she should offer a bag of money with it”
Spectator, 14 July 1711 (from The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland, Steve Roud)
So, if you do give a pin as a present the recipient should prick you with it in order to avoid future quarrels and if someone hands you a pin or a needle you must not say “thank you” or it will hurt the friendship. Finally, always take the pin head first and not point first.
The links between witchcraft and pins are varied and wide-ranging but I found some fascinating examples in Ethel H Rudkin’s book of Lincolnshire folklore, so I will concentrate mainly on those.
Piercing candles with pins is a method of divination. The candle is lit and as the wax melts the diviner waits for the pin or pins to drop. The falling pin can answer questions, give directions, or select a person from a group gathered around. Lincolnshire Folklore gives this example of candle and pin divination from the village of Hemswell:
Charm to see future husband:
“This charm must be worked on All Hallow E’en. Get a candle, set it up, and light it, and stick pins in it – every pin has to have a “ditty” said [for each suitor]. The candle burns down first to one pin and then to another; when it gets to the right man the door will open and he will appear”
Poppets, the figurines or dolls used in spells, are often stuck with pins to use as a curse. The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic explains:
The most common form of cursing is with a figure or effigy that represents the victim. Wax effigies have been found in ancient times including India, Egypt, Africa and Europe. These effigies can also be made from clay, wood or cloth and in more recent times include photographs, bought dolls and ‘collected’ items of clothing.
The idea of sticking pins into an effigy is probably most well known today in the use of “voodoo dolls”, but the practice has been used in many cultures all over the world and dates back to antiquity. The pins could be stuck through the likeness to inflict pain on the intended human, or sometimes used to “pin down” a dead person’s spirit to prevent it from rising and haunting the living. This is a type of “sympathetic magic” (magic where objects or actions either represent or are symbolic to the target).
Other than using effigies/dolls/poppets, the pins could also be stuck in to animal hearts where witchcraft was suspected. This was seen as a form of counter-magic to halt the spell on said animal. It was thought that the link between witch and victim meant that piercing it with a pin and then slowly roasting the heart would inflict pain on the witch herself. Again, Lincolnshire Folklore, provides an interesting example where villagers tried to stop a curse from “The Witch of Old Crosby”:
“This old woman ‘oo was a witch, was a dour looking’ old dame. She witched a man’s cattle, so a calf deed an’ they cut th’ ‘eart out on it an’ stuck it full o’ pins, an’ boiled it on the fire at midnight. This stopped the disease.”
Pins were also routinely placed in “witch bottles”, another form of sympathetic magic. A witch bottle was made to protect against witchcraft and would usually contain the victim’s urine and maybe hair or nail clippings, some nails or pins and other objects that would be in some way symbolic of victim or curse. It is thought that the pins were added to “catch” the magic or curse and therefore trap it in the bottle out of harm’s way.
“the supposed victim of witchcraft would put some of his urine in a bottle with pins or needles, and bury it, believing that this would inflict acute pain on the witch, who would be unable to pass water until the spell had been removed.”
With regards to pins and witchcraft, I’ll briefly return to the idea that if a witch drew blood on a victim they would be in her power, as the counter to this is that if you were able to draw a witch’s blood, they would be powerless to harm you. Once again, we’ll return to Lincolnshire Folklore for the tale of Betty W., the witch of Willoughton:
A witch once went to tea with a woman in Willoughton. She was cordially pressed to take the easy chair with cushions on it. She sat in it, and realised that three pins had been carefully placed in it head down, point up [she said] “Drat the bairns, they knows I can’t ‘arm ’em now!”
Lincolnshire Folklore Ethel H Rudkin
For the final part of this post, we’ll leave witchcraft behind and travel to East Anglia where there was a tradition of gifting elaborate lace trimmed pin cushions when a new baby was born. The pin cushions would be decorated with messages such as “Welcome little stranger” or “May God preserve the both from danger” written out with pin heads. The pins were never actually used, as this was considered unlucky, and the cushions were carefully kept to be displayed when the next baby was born. Tradition had it that the youngest child usually received the pin cushion as a permanent gift. Sometimes pins of varying lengths were inserted only by point to create a basket effect – this led to name of “pin basket” being given as a nickname to youngest child as they were the child who would eventually receive it as an heirloom.
These pin cushions link stylistically with “sweetheart pin cushions” which were made by recuperating soldiers, mainly during World War I, to send home to loved ones. Made from scraps of fabric, trimmings and messages were pinned on, or spelled out using pin heads, rather than sewn.
I’m sure I have only scraped the surface of pin folklore, pin magic and pin traditions, so please do share any snippets of pin lore you know of!
PS if you put a pin in your mouth that has been used in a shroud your teeth will decay.