Quilting Blog

The Inside Scoop on Pincushions: What Goes Inside?

For quilters and sewers alike, pincushions are not only necessary tools of the trade, but another item to personalize for the sewing room. While pincushions range from super simple to elaborate, they all serve an important purpose, so they’re worth doing right.

Pin Cushion for Sewing

But the fun doesn’t stop at the design or the embellishment. What goes inside the pincushion is an important choice for anyone who wishes to get the best function out of their design. Not all pincushions are created equal when it comes to the stuffing.

Let’s review the most common types of pincushion stuffing and how to decide the best option for yours.

1. Cotton stuffing or batting

stuffingcotton batting

Cotton scraps, stuffing and batting are handy because most sewers and quilters have plenty in their stash. But cotton has drawbacks. It’s lightweight, and even when packed tightly into the cushion, it doesn’t give enough weight or stability to the pincushion. The cushion can be easily tipped or rolled when trying to add a pin or removing one. However, a lightweight stuffing won’t be a problem if you’re crafting a wearable pincushion bracelet, like the one below.

2. Ground walnut shells

The better option, chosen by many quilters, is finely ground walnut shells. These can be purchased in small quantities at many quilt shops and sewing supply stores. If you plan to make more than one pincushion, though, you might want to buy a large bag of these at the local pet supply store, where they’re sold as bedding for small animals. If you don’t want to store a large bag, scoop it out into baggies and share it with some friends!

The weight of the ground walnut shells will keep the pincushion in place during use, and the texture of the finely ground shells will help keep the pins and needles sharp. So it works for both functions and gives the shape of the pincushion a nice feel.

If you choose to use the ground shells, be sure to line the pincushion with muslin or batting scraps to prevent any leaks or seepage at seams. It is very easy to make a simple bag of muslin, fill it and then insert it into the pincushion before stitching the last seam closed. 

3. Steel wool

A third option would be to use a steel wool pad. These can be found in the grocery store with the home cleaning products. Be sure to choose a product that does not have added chemicals or cleaners inside the pad. Just plain steel wool has the advantage of sharpening your pins and needles when used. It does have a bit of structure to shape your pincushion, but it will not add stability like the ground walnut shells will.

The disadvantages to the steel wool pads are that they are generally small and will fill only the smallest of pincushions. Using multiple steel wool pads will work, or you could use one in combination with other stuffings. Try adding one just to the top layer of your stuffing of ground shells or cotton and see if you like the effect. This will sharpen the needles without the difficulty manipulating several together. They can be abrasive to work with, so please use caution when handling them.

Classic Pin Cushion

No matter what you choose to stuff your pin cushions with, these suggestions may give you an option not before considered. Whether you go with cotton, shells, steel wool or a combination of the three, make sure you stuff it tightly and close it securely for a durable finish. Your pins, your pin cushion and you will be very happy you did!

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I filled all my usable pincushions with beautiful white sand from the Gulf of Mexico. A layer of wool felt oils the pins and the fine white sand sharpens the points.

Allison Dey Malacaria

I only use natural wool fleece in my pincushions. The lanolin keeps pins and needles naturally smooth and rust-proof. It has a great texture and is very easy to use and doesn’t compact like cotton. I have even used fleece tops straight from the sheep shearing. Wool is my favorite. I tried using thin cotton batting only once as a top layer but the pins wouldn’t even poke through. It was like hitting a wall.

Pat M (Moon Blue)

I’d like to add a note of warning to your comment on using batting for wrist pincushions. You say “However, a lightweight stuffing won’t be a problem if you’re crafting a wearable pincushion bracelet, like the one below”. Ideally, you need a protective barrier (perhaps a small disk of plastic) between the cushion and the wrist. Otherwise, if you are careless, a pin can go right through — and this can be uncomfortable. Most commercial wrist pincushions have this protection.


I always cut a shape from a plastic margarine or butter carton to use in the very bottom of the pincushion, to avoid pins going through to my wrist – or the furniture!

Arlene McMillin

I always used wool from our sheep.

Linda in NC

One word of caution about using walnut shells: While they provide excellent heft as filling, they could also prove a very poor choice should the user have a nut allergy and the habit of holding pins between the lips. If a walnut shelled filled pincushion is going into a bazaar or boutique, it should be clearly labeled as containing walnut shells to prevent an unfortunate incident.

joni gaida

That’s a great comment! I was thinking about making these for family gifts and remembered that my daughter in law is allergic to walnuts. I probably wouldn’t have thought about it without your comment. Great save!

Marlene Clausen

Ground walnut shells are my choice and I ALWAYS label pincushions whether I give or sell them. Take no chances of putting anyone at risk.


Word of caution against putting pins in your mouth, you could inhale them into you lungs which involves a procedure to remove the pin. My sister saw this when she worked in an ER.


I use Emery in the bottom and wool batting on top of that. Best if both worlds

Gabrielle de Geus

I’ve thought of using sawdust instead of walnut shells. Any thoughts on that?

Linda R Schenk

That is what they used in the pin cushions of years ago. My pincushion from Hs which was over 50 years old finally died on me. Sawdust was leaking out everywhere. The silk outside had been poked so full of pins the sawdust leaked and the tomato got less and less till there was nothing left. I also was going to mention steel wool from hardware stores could be used in them.


You could find steel wool at hardware stores, in larger pieces. Usually in the paint section.


That is what I plan on doing, where can you get wool?

Terri Mc

What’s inside the tomato pincushion?


I use rice in mine. I thought of using walnut shells in pin cushions to sell, but just opening the bag was a problem for me. I am allergic to walnuts. I threw the bag away. I have a question: Will using steel wool in a humid climate cause the steel wool to rust over time?

Erudite Birdy

Humid climates rust 14kt. gold too.
You need at least 18kt gold in humid climates.
I found this out in Aruba.

Use Black Emory powder that’s finely ground, about a 300 grit is what is best, I think.

Marlene Clausen

You can find ground walnut shells in 25 lb. boxes at stores that sell tools. They are used for tumbling and blasting and cheaper than any other source. My good friend’s husband put me on to the source as he tumbles brass for CW reproduction weapons. It is a LOT of ground walnut shells, but given the price online or at a quilt shop for a few ounces, you could easily sell by the pound at your local guild.

Karen Glasgow Follett

Thank you for writing this article! I use a fine sand (decorators sand found at most craft stores) enclosed in a wool pouch in my pincushions. I have heard to exercise care when choosing the contents of a Pincushion, as there could be residue on the pin that can stain the fabric. (This cautionary note came from a Home Ec teacher from waaaaay back “in the day.”)

Judy Stewart

I always put ground walnut shells in my biscornus and have not found it necessary to make an interior lining yet. Good point about nut allergy warning. The 8 pound bag of walnut shells I purchased at Petco goes a long way and, if you’re not making them to sell, should last for a long time.

Ruth L

These are all great suggestions! I have also used dried lentils (from the grocer)enclosed in wool felt. Has anyone tried this?

Cassandra S Woodhouse

A thought about lentils, rice, and other fillers: My daughter in law made a really cute Christmas craft and filled with rice. I packed it away in the attic and later found grains of rice everywhere – and the mouse droppings from some happily satisfied mice!

Betty G.

Years ago when my mother and I made pincushions we used the gravel sold for birdcages. THink we called it parakeet gravel. It worked very well. I still have a couple pincushions which contain this gravel.

Gena Cahill

Walnut shells are a really bad option for a pincushion. I had to throw out dozens of pins because they rusted in a pincushion filled with walnut shells.

Yvonne M

I use the grit sold for caged birds. It is heavy, cheap and fine. It keeps the pins sharp and allows easy insertion.

Margaret Barrett

A friend made small ‘strawberry’ needlecushions to go with the tomato pincushions using emery filings. They will not rust like steel wool, and keep needles really sharp. You might have to search for emery filings, but they will be worth it. Also, be sure to take apart old pin/needlecushions before discarding………it’s amazing how many tools are ‘lost’ in the innards over the years!

Linda R Schenk

The Pincushion Tomato (with Strawberry attached) was most likely introduced during the Victorian Era. According to folklore, placing a tomato on the mantle of a new house guaranteed prosperity and repelled evil spirits. If tomatoes were out of season, families would improvise by using a round ball of red fabric filled with sand or sawdust. The good-luck symbol served a practical purpose: a place to store pins! typically, the tomato is filled with wool roving to prevent rust and the strawberry is filled with an abrasive to clean and sharpen the pins.


Be careful using sand in a pincushion that it doesn’t have salt in it. I made a bunch of pincushions to sell and used sand purchased in garden store. After a while the pins started getting etched and rusted; the result of the salt in the sand.

Since I sold the pincushions at a quilt show and knew most of the people that they were sold to, I ended up having either to return the money paid for the pincushions or replacing the pincushions with ones filled with walnut shells. Nobody has complained about the walnut shells yet. You live and learn. Of course, now I am worried about the walnut shells and allergies. I hope no one was allergic to them.

Linda G

Another word about allergies to filling materials:
If you or the recipient of the pincushion is allergic to wool or lanolin, using wool as any part of the pincushion (inside or outside) can cause problems for the handler. Same for raw cotton allergies and using raw cotton batts. Nearly any natural fiber, whether animal or plant-based can cause allergic reactions. By accident, I learned I was allergic to kapok and buckwheat when I slept on pillows that used these plant materials as a stuffing—a very painful experience.
I have found sawdust (main cushion) and emery (sharpening “strawberry”) to be the best fillers for pincushions.


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