Initech Guy/Flickr

Every great invention, from the Murphy bed to the bicycle, started as an improvisation: an elegant solution to something someone needed or just plain wanted. But an improvisation never stops there. The improvised invention gets improvised upon, and that improvisation gets improvised upon, and so on, and so on. Viewing the everyday objects around us as improvisations makes for endless inspiration.

Take the safety pin, the ultimate emergency tool that holds up hems without thread and makes possible all manner of instant repairs. Gorgeous sculptural versions of the safety pin called fibulae date back to 14th Century BC although an American inventor named Walter Hunt is credited with (re-)inventing it in 1848, and innovating a clasp that prevented the sharp pin from poking. Anxious about a loan he had to pay, Hunt was said to have been nervously twisting a piece of wire when the idea for a “dress pin” came to him. He sold the patent for a song. The brilliant, imaginative Hunt also invented the sewing machine and paper shirt collars, as well as a device for walking on the ceiling, among many other things.

British Museum
British Museum

Aside feom being an incredibly useful fastener – instant zipper, temporary button – there are infinite uses to discover for safety pins. Large ones are good for trussing a turkey by pinning together the flaps of skin to hold in stuffing. A half hour before we were due at a black tie dinner, my friend Tom Fallon fashioned an evening bag for me out of a piece of black satin and some black ribbon, held together, invisibly, by safety pins.

They make wonderful fashion accessories, starting with the beautiful ancient fibulae, and moving on to the Scottish kilt pin, and late ’70’s rethinking of the safety pin by British punk rockers who used them to adorn clothes and bodies…

Chris Moorhouse/Getty Images
Chris Moorhouse/Getty Images

…The brilliantly innovative Chris March used safety pins (along with human hair) to create a skirt for his Project Runway competition…



…I have a friend who uses a big safety pin as a key ring with a built-in weapon, open and clasped in her hand, point out, for coming home late at night (sharp!)



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3 replies on “the safety pin (and other everyday objects) as improvisation

  1. An elegant way to mend imperfections. I searched high and low in my apartmento looking for one such pin. I needed to creatively hide a fraying but gorgeous old Florentine pillow case for a guest. It was too good to throw out. A new one would have been soul-less and I didn’t have time to replace it. Luckily, I found the tiniest ‘spillina di sicurezza’. In the end, the bed was beautiful, the pillow case neatly tucked (and still appreciated) by a simple unseen (and un-felt) resource.

  2. “Spillina di sicurezza” !!!! Beatiful. Thanks!

  3. Your charming piece on safety pins reminded me of the most difficult story I ever covered in a long career as an investigative journalist. Tracking down Nazis, tracing the finances of terrorists, freeing wrongly-convicted prisoners — all of it was easy compared to my efforts to track down the details of safety-pin manufacture.

    I was covering business at CNN when I decided to do a story on a business (I believed) that anyone could do at home. What could be simpler than safety pins? You make or buy a simple machine, you put a wire in at one end, you turn a crank and out comes a safety pin! You could do this on your kitchen table, make thousands per day, sell them, and presto! — you have a viable home factory.

    I tried to learn how and where safety pins are made. I canvassed the garment district in New York City. Nobody knew. I called the Department of Commerce and talked to their specialist on fasteners. “I can tell you all about Velcro or even straight pins,” he said, “but I don’t know a thing about safety pins. As far as I know, they don’t even make them in this country any more.”

    Finally, after arduous labor, I discovered a safety-pin factory about two blocks from the CNN studios. I called and proposed to film a story on how they’re made. “You can go right to hell!” the owner snapped. “I would rather kill myself than reveal on CNN how I make my pins!” She hung up on me and I had to abandon the story.

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