Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society, News, Reviews | December 3, 2019
To The Point: Learning About Historical Needle Production
As a textile conservator, needles are an essential and ubiquitous part of my toolkit, as they are for any sewer. I had however, never given the history of this vital bit of kit a second thought until I recently visited Redditch’s charming Needle Museum.
By the end of the 19th century Redditch was the world’s centre for needle manufacture and produced a plethora of different needles from tapestry to surgical. It began as a cottage industry in the area during the 17th and early 18th century, adapting to a factory system by the mid 19th century.
As a textile conservator, I use both curved surgical and straight needles in a variety of sizes. Curved needles are particularly useful when working on fragile textiles as the textile can be stitched from the front without having to hold it from the back, which reduces handling of the textile. I was interested to learn from a sign in this museum that the crossover between stitching flesh and fabric has a historical precedent as, ‘Up to 1799, there was no difference between hand sewing needles and surgical needles.’
Historically, needles have been made from a variety of materials, such as bone, wood, bronze, copper, gold, iron and even a Yucca plant. See images 2 and 3 for a few examples of ancient needles. The museum largely focuses on the production processes that were involved in fabricating steel needles during the mid 19th century when Redditch was the world’s centre for needle production. Given the plain appearance of a needle I was surprised to learn that the processes involved in its production during this period were lengthy and complex. The museum breaks this down beautifully with step-by-step descriptions and examples of the original tools and machinery used.
The first step of the production process was drawing coils of steel wire to the required needle thickness. Needles were, and still are, made two at a time. The heated coil was drawn through a worple plate which had a series of holes of different diameter. Once it was the right thickness the wire was cut to the length of two needles. At this point the cut wire needed to be straightened as it still had a curve from being coiled. Thousands of cut wires were crammed together between two iron rings and heated. The wires and rings were then rolled back and forth and as they rubbed against each other the wires straightened themselves.
The next stage of the process, needle pointing, was a health and safety nightmare! This involved sharpening 50 to 100 straightened needles by placing them against a spinning pointing stone. The process was fast, producing about 10,000 pointed needles an hour. It was also dangerous as stone and metal dust would end up in the worker’s lungs, which over time would cause a lung disease called Pointers Rot. Shockingly men in this role were not expected to live past 35.
Following pointing, the needle of the eye was created using a kick stamp and a fly press. These machines stamped the impression of the needle eye and then pierced it from the metal. Stamping produced metal excess around the needle eye which was ground and filed off. At this stage in the process each wire was still the length of two needles so needed to be split into single needles.
The needles were now perfectly formed but needed to be hardened. They were heated to a very high temperature (800°c) and then cooled in fish oil, followed by being heated again to a lower temperature and then cooled gradually in the air. The hardening process produced black scale which was removed from the needles through scouring - the final step in the process. This made the needles smooth, polished and rust-resistant. Redditch needle museum contains the oldest surviving needle scouring mill in the world!
Scouring involved stacking the needles in strips of canvas or hessian with soft soap, grease and emery powder. This bundle was tied up tightly with twine. These bundles were called setts and were rolled back and forwards. This motion caused the emery and soap to scour the needles clean. Scouring was a lengthy process, lasting from one day to a week, with regular replenishment of the scouring solution. The needles were then washed and polished using oxide of tin and olive oil, then washed again. They were dried in an early form of a tumble drier which contained a revolving barrel with hot sawdust. Lastly the needles were separated from the sawdust, inspected by the manufacturer, packed, labelled and sold.
Learning about the early mass production of the needle has definitely given me a new appreciation for a tool which I normally take for granted, but is essential to the textile industry and my profession. Interestingly, appreciation for the needle is something that has been practiced officially by the Japanese for centuries during Hari Kuyo. This is a Japanese festival dedicated to old and broken needles which takes place every February. Women dressed in bright kimonos gather at Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples around Tokyo to stick their old and broken needles into chunks of tofu as a way of showing gratitude for their hard work!
For those readers who would like to learn more about the history of the needle I highly recommend a trip to Forge Mill Needle Museum in Redditch, www.forgemill.org.uk
Barclay, A., Gloger, J., Mead, B., and Whittington, J.L. Guide to Forge Mill Needle Museum. Published by Forge Needle Museum.
Japan Experience (2016) Hari Kuyo. Available at: www.japan-experience.com/city-tokyo/hari-kuyo (accessed: 20 October 2019).
- Image 1. Display of curved surgical needles in Forge Mill Needle Museum. Image ©Kate Clive-Powell
- Image 2. Late Iron Age Romano - British Needle made of Bronze. Image ©Forge Mill Needle Museum
- Image 3. The needle is made from a turkey bone and the awl is made from a deer bone. Both found in the USA. ©Forge Mill Needle Museum
- Image 4. Wire cutting & straightening. Image ©Forge Mill Needle Museum
- Image 5. Display showing needle pointing at Forge Mill Needle Museum. Image ©Forge Mill Needle Museum
- Image 6. Needle hardening. Image ©Forge Mill Needle Museum
- Image 7. Scouring. ©Forge Mill Needle Museum
- Image 8. Hari Kuyo. Image © I.D.O. for Japan Experience