“It’s All About Me” Monday: The Balsam Pillows

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Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.
–Vladimir Nabokov

When I was a child in upstate New York, I took naps on a sunny glassed-in porch at the farm. On my couch was a special pillow. It was small and floppy and not soft. In fact, it was lumpy and sort of scratchy but . . . it had the most amazing smell.

The smell was faint, just a hint of something special remained. If I squeezed the pillow, I could coax a stronger breath of it out but just for a moment. The fragrance was of all outdoors and mountains and pine trees. It spoke of my grandmother’s house, of the farm, of the region, that place of my birth.

The small pillow was filled with needles of balsam fir. Then, and still now, these small pillows can be found all over the northeast, and especially, it seems, in the Adirondack Mountains of New York and in Maine. They were, and are, sold as souvenirs of a particular kind of wilderness.

I’ve had a thing for these balsam pillows all my life. I wander around my house and can count at least 35 of them—some are vintage, with corny sayings, like “I pine for yew and balsam, too,” printed on the pillows. Some are newer, made of bright Pendleton wool, embroidered cotton, and even one of velveteen.

Of the pillows lying around, probably 10 or more are ones I’ve made over the years. I can buy balsam needles locally for $5.50 a pound. It’s fresh and aromatic and condenses forest-mountains-lakes-sun-breeze-summer into one sniff.

I have usually made my pillows using a quilter’s technique called Cathedral Windows. A solid-colored fabric is folded and sewn in a particular way, until small bits can be turned back to frame an inserted scrap of special fabric, which is featured like the glowing pieces of stained glass.

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A Cathedral Window quilt. Photo by Kristen

Over the years, my featured fabrics have been of Adirondack images—apples, acorns, and pine cones—but my most recent pillows are a little different.

Of all the vintage linens that go though my hands, some of my favorites are classic, hard-working, striped linen dishtowels. They look tailored and efficient and elegant in their perfect design for a job of work.

But some of the towels I handle are damaged by a big hole or dark stain. It pains me to throw such a towel away so I use scraps to decorate my balsam pillows. Some plain muslin fabric, a small square of dishtowel, a random old button—together they make a perfect envelope for that special fragrance.

These are very small pillows, less than 4 inches across. I can use them as sachets and tuck them almost anywhere so that, unexpectedly, I’ll walk through a room and get a hit of that astringent fragrance, evocative, not too sweet, full of memories.

When I smell balsam, it’s always summer and the sun is always shining onto fir needles. I’m a small girl again, taking a nap in a cozy, secure place in the country. When I smell it, I smell home.

But, enough about me! Let’s talk about you. How do you like my balsam pillows? If you craft and make things, is fragrance a part of the making? Is there a smell that transports you back to childhood?

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89 thoughts on ““It’s All About Me” Monday: The Balsam Pillows

  1. The pillows are charming! Great idea to fill them with balsam needles, wonder if pine needles could be substituted? For I love the smell of pine… Don’t believe balsam is around here. The smell of the ocean brings many fond memories to me… Riding the waves on my dads back,catching sand crabs, oysters and clams,and boat rides. Can you guess I grew up not far from the water?!:)

    • Those ocean smells are powerful and very evocative! They came later for me but I love them, too. You could try pine needles–I don’t know how long the fragrance would last. I have a balsam pillow that is at least 60 years old and it still has a soft, sweet smell to it!

  2. I love your balsam pillows. When I lived in White Plains I had LL Bean balsam draught stoppers. Loved them. Lavender takes me back to my grandmother’s house near the sea. She always dried the lavender on newspaper along the sunny back path which went from the kitchen to the laundry/garden shed. Strangely I don’t remember what she did with the lavender.

    • I had LLBean draught stoppers with balsam, too! The cats thought they were big snakes! So many people seem to love lavender but it was not at all part of my life and I still don’t really get it as a beloved fragrance. But I guess that’s the point–we love that which has personal meaning to us.

  3. You took me back to my childhood and my aunt’s balsam stuffed pillow. Hers was a needlepoint rendition of an evergreen branch, but the smell … I can see her knotty pine paneled rec room with that pillow in it when I close my eyes.

  4. Luv Balsam…….fresh, out-of-doors perfume! But, I also LUV Lilly of the Valley!!! Springtime renewal and fresh beginnings/clean slate aroma at it’s best!!!!!! Sigh………….

      • The only perfume I buy is by Jessica McClintock……..the original fragrance. It’s the most delicate I’ve ever smelled and one I always get compliments on as being so fresh and Spring-y. Available at more “up scale” dept. stores.

  5. I love the smell of bees wax furniture polish! Lavender is a favourite and I make lavender bags. On the flip side there was often a smell of mothballs. Goodness knows what they were made of but not a nice smell.

    • That’s funny because another commenter said how much she liked the smell of moth balls! Different associations, I imagine. But, yes, that old furniture polish is a great scent, too.

  6. Beautiful pillows. My transporting smell is cloves. Last week I purchased some loose whole cloves for a recipe and I was, for a moment, a child again sticking cloves into an orange to make a pomander for someone as a Christmas gift.

  7. What lovely pillows! And to be able to attach a memory to a smell, thats such a unique thing. I love the smell of the ocean on a foggy still morning. There’s something about it that brings me comfort. This might be a challenge to capture!

    • If someone could make a convincing air freshener of ocean smells, I think they could earn a ton of money! And, sadly, it could never be stuffed into a little pillow . . .

  8. love your pillows! Balsam pillows are wonderful, we save our balsam wreath each year so we can smell that smell longer. And I make sure to always use a brand new vacuum cleaner bag when we clean up the Christmas tree, so for a few weeks at least, we can have that lovely smell again when we vacuum. Of course, we have balsams all over the place right outside the door, so we can smell them whenever we go out.

    My childhood memories are triggered by the salty smell of low tide and beach roses. Both sets of grandparents had summer cottages, so we spent a lot of fun hours at the ocean.

      • Our son is in the middle east for a deployment. He had to take a plane to Germany for repairs a few weeks ago. They were in Germany for about 4 days. While there he had a chance to borrow a bike and go for a 25 mile ride. He only commented on the smell of green, of things growing, as there is none of that where he currently is. (Soon he goes back to WA. YAY!)

      • We don’t know how much we love a fragrance, maybe, until we miss it! How great for you all that he’ll be on US soil again soon!

  9. I love the scent of pine! Do you think this could work with any fragrant evergreen? I have spruce and pine in my yard, along with a bunch of wool scraps…I may have to try this.

    • I say go for it! I don’t know how long the scent of other evergreens will last–I’ve never heard of others being used but what do you have to lose! The balsam scent fades but lasts for years. I have a pillow that’s at least 60 years old and it still has a hint of that special smell!

  10. transported back to my childhood, summer at the lake in northern B.C. I think the filling was pine and I still have a small green bear, stuffed as hard as a rock, but the smell is all gone. LOVE your cathedral window pillows. Think I’ll have to try some with handwoven scraps.

    • Oh, yes, you’d have lots of pine and probably balsam, too, in BC. My 60-year-old balsam pillow still has its fragrance, though it’s faint now. I’d love to see what you make with the cathedral window inspiration!

  11. I love the idea of balsam pillows. And I love the idea of the evocatively-named Cathedral Windows quilting. We have a couple of hand made cushions, bought from a craft fair, done in this way, and knowing the name of the technique makes them that much more special

    • I first saw the cathedral window design when I took a crafts course in college and I think the name got to me as much as the design. You should google the phrase “cathedral window quilt” and just look at the images–the variations on the theme are spectacular!

    • Really? you’re a New Englander and you haven’t seen these? I surprised–they are absolutely ubiquitous here, in the Adirondacks in shops, and in Maine, too, I think. I bet you do have childhood memories of smells–you’ll know them when they hit you at some odd moment. The smell of sun on hay, exhaust from a power boat, wood smoke, pumpkin pie–I just know there’s something . . .

  12. Your little pillows are just beautiful Kerri – your home must be such a treat to wander around. I’m sure it would be like being in a beautiful boutique with a hundred gorgeous fabrics, textiles, objects vying for my attention ………. There are two scents that take me out of myself – the smell of new mown grass always evokes warm summer days and a certain feeling of peacefulness no matter the season and that particular ozone laden salty sea tang that heightens my senses and alerts me to edge of the world space and time and fills me with feelings of adventure and wonder and not a little awe too ………. This time of the year I am particularly fond of the smell of eucalyptus oil wafting about the house.

    • I like your fantasy of my house better than the reality! Ha! It’s actually kind of a jumbled mess . . . I love the smell of mown grass, too, but it doesn’t bring back particular memories. Now, hay drying in a field? That’s a different story. My ocean experience same later and now I love that fragrance you describe!

  13. Oh, that Nabokov quote is so true. Fresh cut alfalfa and the tang of coal smoke can take me back to specific childhood spots. The smell of bananas in a fruit basket and strawberry jam on buttered toast (yes, the smell) put me in my grandmother’s kitchen. Scent is so elemental. These little pillows are charming. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen one, but I can imagine what they must smell like–a highway in Nova Scotia on a bright summer day!

    • You have a lot of interesting scents that you can identify! I like the strawberry jam one–my grandmother’s kitchen was a special place, too. If you come north and drive through the Adirondacks, or Maine or the Maritimes, spend a few bucks and get one of these pillows–you couldn’t find a more evocative souvenir!

  14. I love your little pillows too. I have never smelt balsam pine but balsam is an ingredient in some scented candles and oils I believe, so I have probably smelt it but not known what it was. I love the smell of new mown grass, wet earth after rain, woods in autumn, most flower scents and oddly, the smell of warm canvas! We used to have camping holidays when I was growing up and waking early with the sun shining through the canvas and the warmth of it too, after a chilly night is a special memory. I was never an enthusiastic camper!

  15. What a lovely story, written /worded so beautiful. The pillows are gorgoues! I am certainly partial to scents and the memories they evoke: pale pies, candle wax, honey, furniture wax…and I also made scents pillows for the boys. Little soft flannel pillow, filled with soft wool and herbs like lavender and camomile. Excellent for little active boys to com down after a busy outside;o) Thanks you for a lovely story! Xo Johanna

    • Thanks, Johanna–writing about a special memory makes me happy. I love that you made scented pillow for the boys. A friend is having a baby soon and I’m weaving a blanket. Maybe I’ll weave a little extra for a sweet-smelling pillow, for when the baby gets older!

  16. I love your pretty scented pillows, and that you found a use for the damaged towels. I’ve thought about making lavender sachets, but am not familiar with the balsam.
    I remember a smell from early childhood that made an impression on me. It wasn’t a scent in my house, but maybe from the house of my friend up the street. I associated it with new houses. Many decades go by, and I’m in a store and discover what the scent was. Mothballs! And I still like it,too.

    • I really like the way the stripes from the towels look in that cathedral window design! I’ve actually filled some of the little pillows with lavender and some with cedar shavings, to use as moth repellents. Now, mothballs–I can’t say I like that fragrance but it brings back strong memories for me, too!

  17. Kerri, I always look forward to your posts. You have a wonderful voice and a beautiful writing style. It’s inviting. Seeing these little pillows makes me long for a small hand-sewing project. It also makes me want to learn how to quilt. I’ve read that scent is one of our most powerful senses. It certainly does carry you back in time. The smell of Jergen’s hand lotion reminds me of my mother and the kitchen sink in our home in Canada. It carries me back to that time. I love earthy smells, including redwood forests, autumn leaves, the rain and like Pauline, freshly mowed grass.

    This is my last post before bed. I’ll be thinking of your little pillows. I wonder if you sell them in your Etsy shop?

    • And, Alys, I always look forward to your comments–they are so generous and kind! You could easily learn to make this cathedral window design–it’s a little confusing at first but then so easy, really. And it’s portable and can be done either entirely by hand or in a combination of machine and hand sewing. Maybe someday I’ll try and write a tutorial although there are some very good ones out there in cyberspace. I had forgotten about the smell of Jergens! Love that smell! So many good smells, once you stop to think. I did have some of the little pillows listed on Etsy for awhile but none of them sold–I think the price I put on them, to account for the time I spent, etc., made them too dear for people to want to buy!

      • Thank you, Kerry. I see I keep changing the spelling of your name from Kerry to Kerri and back again. Sorry about that.

        I did some hand sewing last week and was reminded once again how relaxing it is. It was also nice to check a few things off the “list” so to speak. I don’t have a dedicated sewing space, so it means setting up the iron near the kitchen and a folding table in our living room for my machine. Classy, eh?

        I’m sorry your little pillows didn’t sell, but I’m glad you priced them according to the work involved. Too many folks “give away” their work. It makes me sad.

      • I don’t have a dedicated sewing space either–it’s a drag! And my loom is in the guest room so it needs to be folded up whenever we have company . . . I need a bigger house! 😉

      • Let’s get bigger houses. I think an entire floor dedicated to crafting is in order. I’ll set up a sewing room, a room for crafting my fairy gardens, and a third room for paper crafts. Mike can have a room too. I don’t want to be selfish. 😉 How many rooms will you have?

      • This is a fun exercise! I would have a big, open room that would hold at least three floor looms (and I would share with my husband, too!) And a room for quilting, for sure. Then it would be nice to have a small, cozy room, especially for sitting quietly with hand work . . . ahhhhh!

      • Oh yes. a cozy room is a must. I would also install catwalks along the ceiling so the kitties could travel from room to room. Have you seen those? They’re inspired.

  18. My father used to bake bread and that aroma was heavenly. Unfortunately, I did not inherit that talent from him so it is only a memory now. I do love the smell of balsam and the pillows are lovely.

    • New-baked bread is a fabulous smell, in and of itself, and when it brings thoughts of your father or, in my case, my grandmother, the smell is even better!

  19. I love your pillows! And yes, fragrance can be such a powerful memory-jogger. The smell of freshly cut grass always reminds me of summers at school – in those days schools had their own playing fields – not so much the case now, sadly.

  20. So pretty, Kerry, and what a nice story to go with it. I like the cathedral window quilt also. 2 days ago, I smelled something that instantly reminded me of rose apples from my childhood at my grandmother’s house in Jamaica. It’s a rare fragrance and I’ve never smelled it outside Jamaica.

  21. I love your little pillows and the idea of putting balsam in them.That’s a new one for me and I’m not familiar with it. I have found some candles that combined lavender and vanilla and I don’t even need to light them for the smell to waft through the room. I sleep with a lavender pillow a friend made and it helps a lot. The cathedral window is a delightful pattern I have not yet tried. Now it’s a must. I’ll do some research into the balsam and see if I can find some. Shouldn’t be hard in the Pacific North West.

    • I would think balsam would be available there, for sure! And do try the cathedral window technique. It’ll seem fussy at first but it’s such a nice portable project–you can do some on the sewing machine, too, or all by hand. And once you’re done, you’re done–it doesn’t get quilted!

  22. What a great way to use up smaller pieces of fabric and those towels with bad stains!
    Lilacs bring me back to my childhood as we had several large bushes in our backyard as I was growing up 🙂

  23. One of my grandmas had a balsam pillow! It sat on a couch in the pine room and I would take naps there, lying on my back with the pillow over my face. I loved breathing in that smell! Now it also makes me think of Summer in Colorado when it’s hot and the pine tress smell. Such a cool and soothing smell. Maybe I will make a pillow too! Yours are charming!

    • You should definitely make a pillow–it will transport you back in time! I love that you had a childhood experience with a balsam pillow, too . . .

  24. I can almost imagine the smell and see you as a child with your balsam pillow. This is a new idea for me, something I’ve not heard of. And now that I’ve awoken to the beautiful tradition, I hope to soon create an aromatic balsam pillow. What time of year do you typically purchase the local balsam ground greens – winter?

    • These pillows would be beautiful made from handwoven fabric!! And think how nice your rooms would smell, combining the balsam with your lavender wands! I’ve gone to that local tree farm–Moody’s–in mid-summer and gotten the balsam. Because it’s ground it is very fragrant whenever you buy it, I think. The scent does lessen quite a lot over time but a hint lasts for years and years. Let me know what you make!

      • Well, then I must make pillows with balsam. It will be great fun, thanks for the inspiration. This will be a project to help me transition from autumn into winter. (I write in the 90F heat of summer into autumn!)

  25. These pillows look delightful. I know from first-hand experience how awesome they smell. I love the balsam sachet.that you sent me a few years ago.

  26. Kerry, I adore your pillows! Do you sell them in your shop? I would love to buy some if you do.

    And surprise, surprise, I actually know about Cathedral Windows. My mother made a Queen sized quilt with that technique. She even entered it into a show. We were so proud.

    • I did have them listed for awhile, Laurie, but got no interest in them. I had them priced at $20 each and I think that’s steep . . . but they are pretty time intensive to make and I didn’t want to go lower. Do you have a photo of your mom’s quilt? I’d love to see it–a queen-size version would be a SERIOUS undertaking! Is the quilt in the family?

      • I think my friends would love these, so if you ever make more, I’ll buy three!
        I emailed my mother about a picture of the quilt and this was here response “I do not have a picture but if I can figure out how I can take one with my phone and send it to you but don’t hold your breath! Yes I did enter it in a quilt show but at the moment I can’t think of the name of it——it was an old home, near Mt Vernon. I was about a year or so too late as quilting had just reached
        a new level and mine was just not good enough but it was displayed. xoxo Mom”
        Isnt’ that great? I’m so glad you mentioned a photo. It gave me an opportunity to let her know that I’d been bragging about her. She worked on that quilt forever! 🙂

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