The invention of the wheel seems to be the eternal benchmark for determining when mankind left the ranks of humanoid and became true homo sapiens. But had it not been for the needle, there might not have been anyone around to invent the wheel.
Exactly when the needle was invented is lost in the mists of prehistory, but when the first cave person pierced and fastened two animal skins together, it was the beginning of a new era. By sewing skins together for warmth and protection, Stone Age man enabled himself to stay longer in the northern climate, thus breaking away from his heretofore nomadic existence. The needle, then as now, was a simple tool. Early museum examples suggest that skins were pierced and secured by a thong drawn through by a hooked instrument made of bone or horn.
During the Bronze Age (4000-2000 B.C.), metalworkers experimented with various kinds of ores. They isolated silver, lead, tin, and gold, but the secret of iron eluded them at first. What secrets they did know were closely guarded and handed down from one generation to the next. King Tut’s tomb yielded a golden dagger, which was studded with precious stones and had a steel blade, probably a gift from a Hittite ruler. Once the steel making process was invented, iron became the poor man’s metal. While queens used gold or bronze needles and pins, the farmer’s wife now had iron. Early iron needles had no eyes, but used a closed hook to carry the thread.
The Chinese probably developed the first fine metal needle out of necessity. The silk industry demanded such an implement to create embroidered garments which, along with needles, were rare and costly trade items.
The Low Countries of Europe specialized in the manufacture of needles in the 15th century. Needle making was a licensed craft done entirely by hand and was recognized within the guild system as having great importance. The lowly needle was the agent that meshed the wool merchants with the weaving industry.
These future needles were straightened by placing the bundles of wire within two iron rings, 4″ in diameter, and heated in a furnace until they were a dull red. Workmen rapidly straightened the curved wires using an iron rod. After cooling, the wires were turned over to the grinder who gave them their points.
Grinding metal required the use of a water wheel, so master grinders and their apprentices clustered in villages that had a stream that could be harnessed for energy. The average lifespan of a grinder in the mid-19th century was 29 years, and the work of a needle grinder was no less deadly. Leaning over a dry stone wheel, the artisan breathed particles of jagged steel along with the stone dust. The practice of covering the grindstone and using fans was not adopted until years later. Even then, grinders refused to use safety features. They felt that elements of danger discouraged newcomers from entering what the grinders perceived to be an overcrowded profession.
After the needle grinders sharpened both ends of the wires, the wires were then taken to the factory’s stamping shop where each was placed under a die; two eyes and two channels (or gutters, as they were then called) were stamped exactly in the center.
The eye portion was then punched out. The Siamese-twin needles were then separated by passing fine wires between the two rows of eyes. The burr was filed off, and the rough form of each needle was complete. Young girls were used for these jobs because their eyesight was extremely accurate. Picture, if you will, a dimly lit shop where small children, whose very lives depended on it, labored long hours as fast as they could at tedious, eye-straining work. There was little, if any, heat in the winter and no cooling or ventilation in the summer. This sad picture of child labor is but one of many associated with needle manufacture.
Still, the needle was not done. Trays full of needles were heated again to a dull red and quickly drenched in oil. This made them extremely brittle. Then they were placed on a hot plate and turned constantly by hand with two small, hatchet-like tools until they began to change color. When the metal faded from dull red to deep blue and finally to a pale straw color, the true temper was established and the heat was withdrawn. The cooled needles were passed to women whose delicate fingers could discover small warps. One by one, the needles were straightened with the tap of a small hammer on a tiny anvil.
Dr. Wynter continued his description of the needle-making process by comparing a youngster to a needle in language that could only have come from another time:
“And just as in the world the awkward youth is subjected to severe antagonistic influences, which together mould him into the smooth and pleasant man, so the needle, in like manner, suffers a wholesome trituration.”
The “suffering” of the needle was not complete until it was rolled in a heavy canvas-like cloth with soap, oil, and emery. A number of bundles were placed in a tumbler, which turned for eight days, eight hours per day until the needles were smooth and shiny. They were then dumped into a copper pan filled with soapsuds to be cleaned. Finally they were dried in a bin of sawdust.
Child labor again entered the picture. The needles had to be retrieved from the sawdust and “evened,” or placed parallel to each other. A young girl called a “ragger” because of the rag she used to protect the forefinger of her right hand, would push this finger into a clump of needles. The points stuck on the rag and were withdrawn and placed in the same direction.
Women now sorted them into sizes with, Dr. Wynter related, “a kind of instinct with which the reasoning powers seem to have nothing to do.” The sorted needles were separated into parcels called “companies.” Weighing took the place of counting; 1,000 needles on a scale exactly balanced 1,000 needles.
Still not referred to as needles, the heads of the companies were subjected to heat, both to give a blue tint to the gutter (which in 1861 was considered ornamental) and to soften them in order to countersink the eyes. This ensured smoothness so that the thread would not be cut. Skilled grinders once again polished the heads and points of smaller companies containing 70 needles. The entire mass was slowly revolved in a small grindstone until the desired quality was achieved.
The original batch of wire came out to 14 pounds and provided material to make 48,100 needles. In the process, 1,400 were lost or broken, so 46,700 could be packaged for sale. The area of Redditch and its surrounding villages in Worchestershire made 520 tons of needles in 1861.
Modem needles are made from steel wire 1/5″ in diameter that is drawn through several progressively smaller dies until it reaches the required thinness. The wire is cut into pieces the length of two needles. Each piece is ground to a point on both ends, two eye shapes are die-stamped back-to-back in the center of the piece, and the eye holes are punched out. The piece is then cut into two needles. Finally, the needle is tempered and electroplated with nickel; sometimes the eye portion is gilded.
From start to finish the entire process can be done by robots controlled by computers. Humans only push the “start” button.
The importance of needles has not changed one bit since they were first invented. Whether they are used in dress making, quilting, or embroidery, thread cannot go through fabric without them. and How lucky we are, that we can ply our needles in the comfort of our own homes or in the company of friends!