Where would we be without needles? Just maybe we’d all be living in warmer climates wearing draped and tied garments. Some anthropologists credit the development of the needle with allowing early hominids to migrate to the far reaches the northern hemisphere. Stitched animal skin garments provided the necessary warmth and protection from the cold.
Early needles were carved from animal parts: bones, tusks, and antlers and had carved notches to hold sinew or fibers. Plant materials were probably also used, but those sewing tools didn’t survive for later discovery. The oldest known needle with an eyelet hole was found in a Siberian cave in 2016. The 2 ¾” bone implement is believed to be at least 50,000 years old.
Eventually, needles were made with copper, bronze, and iron. After Chinese methods for making steel began to spread, Islamic artisans developed techniques for drawing high quality steel wire and used it to make the precursors of the needles we use today. Their methods eventually spread to Germany, France, and finally to England via Moorish needle-makers.
In Europe, needle-makers had specialized guilds. Needles were valuable items stored in special cases worn on chatelaines. The Industrial Revolution changed all of that. Needle-making became mechanized in the eighteenth century, with production centered in Redditch, England. High quality needles became plentiful and comparatively inexpensive. By the late 19th century, needle factories in Redditch, England produced 90% of the world’s needles.
Mechanized needle production started with forming steel wire that was then cut. Next the eyes were punched. Files were used to smooth the eyes and sharpen points. After being hardened and tempered, needles were placed in bags with emery dust and olive oil for a polishing process. Once washed and dried, the needles’ points were re-sharpened on a grinding wheel – up to 100 at a time – by a pointer. Pointers were the most highly paid needle factory workers, but had the most dangerous job. The metal and grinding stone dust produced by the process caused a respiratory illness called Pointer’s Rot. Most pointers died before they were 35.
The production of needles for hand sewing was gradually overtaken by the manufacture of sewing machine needles for both domestic and industrial markets. Redditch factories lost their dominance, and German factories took the lead in machine needle manufacture. Nowadays the world may take the easy availability of wide range of needles for granted; but to a sewist, a well-made needle is still a small treasure.
Tenner, Edward. "Needles." Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion, edited by Valerie Steele, vol. 2, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2005, pp. 447-449. Gale eBooks, https://link-gale-com.access-proxy.sno-isle.org/apps/doc/CX3427500419/GVRL?u=sirls_main&sid=GVRL&xid=18038327.
An English Needle Factory ca 1892
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