In China’s traditional culture, men work the land and women take care of domestic duties. Females must be skillful at crafts such as spinning, weaving, embroidering, and shoe making. Only a woman who possesses very good craft skills will be recognized and have a good marriage. It is very common for girls to start learning these crafts from their mothers or other family relatives when they are very young. The Needle and Thread Box, as the name goes, is a kind of container for a woman to put her craft tools in, such as needles, thread, scissors, and rulers.
The Needle and Thread Boxes in Shandong province are special and elaborate. They are made by using many techniques including sewing, cutting, and painting. The most common shapes are round, square, and peach shaped. The surfaces of the boxes are decorated with paintings or paper cuttings with themes and meanings related to luck. For example, a magpie standing in the plum, a goldfish and the lotus, and peony and butterfly are all Chinese themes which express people’s wish for the safety and luck of a family. They also serve as a blessing for those wishing to have children.
Today, women in Laizhou, as well as in a few other areas, still carry on the Needle and Thread Box tradition. It is a necessary trousseau for weddings. In the tradition, mothers would prepare the Needle and Thread Box for their daughters before their wedding and would fill it with needles, thread, scissors, and rulers that their daughter had used along with some new ones, hoping that she will be able to do all the crafting well and have a happy life. On the day of the wedding, the Needle and Thread Boxes will go with the bride to her new family.
When Sun married, she received a similar box as a gift from her mother. Traditionally, Zhe and Sun’s creations are dowry boxes, intended originally to accommodate the requisite jewelry, money, clothes, thread, insole patterns, and needles to be a good wife, mother, and daughter-in-law. As she joined her new family, the bride brought the needle and thread box, which was placed in a large bowl and wrapped in red cloth.
Two boxes were prepared for good luck to go with the daughter to her new family. Today, the boxes are also filled with money, books, and biscuits as supplies for the newly deceased in funerals. Although the boxes are not as popular as they used to be, Zhe and Sun continue to have customers, and they make the boxes according to each customer’s preferences.
-Jackie Edwards in personal communication with Tian “Terry” Yuan the Folk Art Research Institute, SUAD, August 9th 2009.