We were issued with a Housewife on joining the National Defence Academy (NDA) in 1979. Why a housewife to a 16-year-old cadet? That too an item which was neither male nor female, and wasn’t even a living being.
It was a simple Khaki pouch containing needles, thread, thimble, buttons, and a pair of scissors, meant for sewing on buttons, darning socks, and mending uniforms. It was called the Hussif by the officers at the Academy and Housewife by many Cadets and the soldiers who were the Havildar Quartermasters at the Squadron.
Housewife morphed into Hussif and first appeared in print in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1749 suggesting that it had already been in common use. Hussif was later shortened to Hussy.
However, the term is now banned in modern armies which acknowledges that the gender specific term is not only outdated but also offensive to women.
By the mid 19th century these rolled-up sewing kits became standard army issue. Before the invention of safety pins, for a quick fix, sewing needles were used to remove splinters and, at times, even sew up the soldier’s wounds!
When I joined Sainik School, Amaravathinagar, TN at the age of nine we had to carry a small plastic box with contents like the hussif.
I hardly used my hussif at the Academy during my three years other than for sewing some lost buttons. Behold! It had to be carefully maintained as it had to be produced during kit muster held at the beginning of each semester at the Academy and also during inspections. The hussif was part of the small pack we carried in the Field Service Marching Order (FSMO.)
The name hussif comes from a time when it was common for mothers, wives and fiancés in the 18th and 19th centuries to personalise these kits with embroidery for their menfolk to take to war. It was often packed in the holdall and stowed within the man’s haversack. Few hussifs of those days were covered with flowers or other feminine motifs if the hussif was a gift from a needlewoman in their life.
The humble hussif played an important role in both the World Wars. Embroidery was widely used as a form of therapy for wounded soldiers, especially those recovering at the hospitals. The bright environment of the hospital was the perfect place for them to engage in embroidery as an activity, which helped in their rehabilitation. The imagery and stories they stitched were often reflective of pride in their regiment, the battlefields they had fought in, or messages of love to a distant sweetheart.
Military museum around the world proudly display many hussifs of soldiers, especially from the World Wars. The National Army Museum in London, England displays an ornamental hussif of Drummer Yeates (1867) with beautiful embroidery and bead-work with the motifs of the Queen, Union Jack, his regimental insignia and battle honours, and a message of nostalgia for home.
Armies and Navies, from Britain to Australia to North America, issued hussifs as part of the standard kit to their soldiers, at least up to the Korean War era. The British Army continued to do so, well into the 1960s and the Indian Army until the early 80s.
Australian soldier Henry John Harris who participated in the First World War wrote about an ingenious use of the hussif. “Owing to the extreme cold conditions and as there were a store of sandbags in the pillbox, I decided to sew several of the sandbags together to make a blanket, and believe me those sandbags did keep me and a cobber [comrade] warm for the four nights we stayed in that pillbox.”
The standard Canadian Forces Sewing Kit from the 1990s is in green material with pockets inside and a piece of felt to which needles could be tacked. The cover is secured by by Velcro to the body of the kit. Inside the pockets are two plastic bags, one with buttons, and the other with thread, a thimble and a needle threader. Needles and safety pins are attached to the felt.
Another remarkable object that is etched in my memory is the Button Stick. These were used by the civilian bearers or orderlies to polish all the brass buttons, shoulder titles etc of our various Academy uniforms, though I never saw them later in my Army career.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes it as ‘a strip of metal or wood slotted in such a way that it will pass over a row of buttons (as on a military tunic) allowing each button to appear through a slit so that the buttons may be polished without soiling the cloth.’
These button sticks were used by soldiers to polish the buttons on their uniform without spilling any of the polish on the fabric. During WW I, when soldiers were out of the trenches, they often had to ensure that the buttons of their uniform were polished using Brasso. While tedious and time-consuming, soldiers used this brass button polishing guard to avoid staining the fabric with excess polish which left a nasty brown stain on their Khaki or Olive Green uniforms.
It could well be that the button sticks used by the orderlies of the NDA may date back to the World War days!
Why did the armies over the world have done away with the hussif? Repairing or darning the uniform, stitching a lost button… are still needs of the day!