The Sewing Needle: A History through 16-19th Centuries.

GEORGE THWAITES & SON, Melbourne (attributed to) (manufacturer)
Sewing box (c. 1845)

The sewing needle holds an intrinsically important place in history. One of the earliest stories of the humble needle appears in the Bible and Quran; Adam and Eve sew fig leaves together to adorn themselves with an apron for some modesty, and the Quran references the needle as one of the five tools brought to Paradise by Adam. Evidence of the needle, with an eye, can be dated as far back as the Gravettian period, around 25,000 years ago. The needle contains social subtexts that speak of social standing, technology, gender identity and even copyright. From a marketing and advertising point of view, the needle featured in the first recorded printed advertising, found in China dating 1200.

The role of the sewing needle in England around 1600-1900 gleans remarkable developments and shifts. Sixteenth century England welcomed various skills and trades arriving from Europe due to political upheaval for Islamic Spaniards. Needle making was one of these. The Spaniards were reportedly the masters of needle making, inheriting the secrets from Islamic needle makers, passing their skills on to the Germans. Prior to Spanish needle workers arriving in England, needles were crude and rough in manufacture, typically carried out by a blacksmith. Around the early sixteenth century, English needle makers began importing the specially drawn wire from Spain and Germany, whom excelled in drawing wire, and final fabrication of the needle was carried out and further developed by the English.

After 1567, the importation of wire was no longer necessary as the English had learnt how to draw a fine wire themselves. The small town of Redditch went on to become world famous for its high quality manufacturing of handmade sewing needles – water powered scouring mills allowed Redditch needle makers to execute an exceptional finish. The first recorded needle made in Redditch was in 1639. This timing along with the Restoration of Charles II and the trend for grand personal adornment of these times, needles were in demand. By the 18th century Redditch was manufacturing one million sewing needles per year. So much so was Redditch admired and in demand globally, a town in Tokyo purposefully named a new village ‘Redditch’ so they were legitimately able to put ‘Made in Redditch’ on their packaging. The eye of the Redditch needle was apparently so small that a modern day thread is not fine enough to pass through, other than specifically fine Sutures.

Technology advances led to the ‘industrial revolution’, and manufacture of the humble needle became a toxic and risky occupation, taken over by the introduction of machinery in 1828. In 1824 around 5 million needles were handmade per week in the Redditch district, and by 1847, after the introduction of machinery; 50 million were churned out per week.  A ‘pointer’ was able to grind up to 100 needles a time on the grindstone, completing around 10,000 needles an hour. Pneumoconiosis, known as Pointer’s Rot was the result of inhaling a mix of fine metal particulates and grindstone dust into the lung. Another risk was the grindstone fatally shattering or a shard of metal ending up in the pointer’s eye causing blindness. Furthermore, to impede rust, needles were rolled in asbestos powder – prior to learning lung disease was a product of exposure to asbestos. Life expectancy for a pointer was 35yrs of age, or otherwise five to six years of working in this field till health issues commonly surfaced.

The needle throughout this 400 year period had various guises.  Around the 1600s it was an exotic, special and rare object; it was treasured and admired, boasting and supporting a successful craft industry. A silver or gold needle was considered a splendid gift amongst the wealthy and worn securely in a pouch around the head of the house’s belt.  Following the arrival of the industrial revolution it became a highly demanded household necessity, the needle became a common object, (now almost disposable), and neglected the welfare of the human labor it commanded. However, this humble tool of genius has enabled man to create the necessary garments to survive, diversify and progress through the ages, empowering our travels and strong arm in trade between continents and cultures.

References/ Further reading

Beaudry, M. C., Findings: The Material Culture of Needlework and Sewing, Yale University, London, 2007.

Parker, R, The Subversive Stitch, I. B. Tauris & Co Ltd., New York, 2010.

Morrall, M. T., History and Description of Needle Making, Balmoral House, Manchester, 1862., accessed May 2015., accessed May 2015., accessed May 2015., accessed May 2015.