The needle is the distinctive tool of the Upper Paleolithic period that began about 40,000 years ago. The oldest known needles with eyes date from the Gravettian period, about 25,000 years ago. The needle is one of the earliest survivors of the explosion of invention that the textile archaeologist Elizabeth Wayland Barber called the String Revolution. Paleolithic needles made of animal bones, antlers, and tusks helped make possible the extension of human settlement into cooler regions after the Ice Age (until about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago), and they also were used for fashioning fishing nets and carrying bags. There is evidence that by the Gravettian, needles were used not only to stitch hides together for warmth but also for sewing and decorating textiles for social and erotic display. The needle was associated thus closely with humanity's new conceptual skills and expressions, including fashion itself.
Paleolithic needles had grooves rather than eyes to hold sinew or fiber. Some cognitive psychologists have suggested a progression in thought and design from the awl to the needle with an eye at its midpoint to the familiar form with a hole for the thread at the end opposite the point. It is much more likely that each form of needle, as today, was fashioned according to materials available for tools and sewing and the work to be done. Styles coexisted. Ancient Egyptians made ceramic double-pointed needles with an eye at each end; Heinrich Schliemann found six bone needles at Troy, most of them notched but one with an eye opposite the point. Roman needles were made of bronze and iron, with the eye on top.
The history of the needle reminds us of how recently the West achieved its technological lead. The medical texts of the Vedas—ancient and sacred Hindu texts first written about 3,500 years ago—prescribe straight and curved high-quality steel needles with today's familiar oval eyes and call attention to their care. While German cities had specialized guilds of needlemakers dating from the fourteenth century, the Persian theologian Ghazali, writing about 1100 c.e., praised as an example of human cooperation the division of the work of making a needle into twenty-five stages. Spain inherited the secrets of Islamic steel needlemaking; refugees brought these skills to England. Even in the London of Henry VIII (r. 1509–1547), the only needlemaker who could draw his own steel wire was a Spanish immigrant. Other masters imported coils from Germany and Spain. Needles were among a household's valuables, protected in special cases that women attached to their belts. Only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did large needlework boxes become common, even among the affluent.
Between the death of the London master in the sixteenth century and the publication of the Encyclopédie in the eighteenth century, British and French needlemakers made great but largely undocumented progress in their craft. Needles were supplied for many trades outside of fashion and medicine, including clock making and goldsmithing. To escape guild restrictions on machinery in the seventeenth century, many needlemakers relocated to Redditch, England, in the Midlands, where the industry has remained ever since, with ample water power (from the Red Ditch that gave it its name) and proximity to both metalworkers and crafts using needles. While the Encyclopédie of 1762 illustrates a variety of stages in a single workshop, the Redditch industry remained a network of families, each specializing in one or more stages of the process.
Eighteenth-century needlemakers developed a system of production that is still the basis of today's automated factories. (Surgical needles are still made by hand.) Steel was heated, shaped into a cylinder, and drawn through a number of dies to achieve the proper gauge, then cut into needle lengths. The end was hammered flat, the wire heated, and an eye punched and—often—grooved for easier threading; then the eye was filed smooth and the other end sharpened by filing. The needles were hardened by heating and cooling, then tempered for strength and straightened with a hammer and anvil. Up to 15,000 needles were polished by enclosure in a bag with emery dust and olive oil—a package moved back and forth between planks under a heavy weight for as long as two days—after which they were washed with hot water and soap and dried in a bran-filled box, then sorted and repointed manually with an emery stone. The water-powered scouring mills of Redditch produced such an excellent finish that the town attracted most of England's needlemakers.
During the eighteenth century, workshops grew as the operations were divided among workers of different skills. Craftsmanship may have reached an all-time peak in supplying needles for the finest embroidery and other luxury work. The Forge Mill Needle Museum in Redditch has needles from the time with hand-punched eyes so small they are visible only with a magnifying glass. Thread fine enough to pass through them is no longer made, except for some specialized sutures.
In the early industrial revolution, needle workers were both aristocrats and casualties. In the final stage, a pointer held up to 100 needles at a time against a grindstone and could finish as many as 10,000 an hour. If a grindstone broke and flew apart, it could be fatal, but the most serious threat was inhalation of tiny particles of stone and metal, which caused Pointer's Rot, an occupational pulmonary disease. Surviving pointers—their life expectancy was under thirty-five years—earned a guinea a day, and long resisted not only mechanization but also dust exhaust equipment that would have reduced their wages as well as their mortality. Nor were risks limited to the needle workshops and factories. To inhibit rust, eighteenth-century needles were (at least in France) sometimes packed in asbestos powder before the mineral was known to cause lung cancer.
The nineteenth century was the golden age of needle production. Higher disposable incomes, the new profusion of textiles, the introduction of the sewing machine, and the rise of world trade with the steamship and the British Empire all expanded markets as new machinery expanded capacity. The rule of thumb was that a nation bought three to four hand-sewing needles per year per household. Needles were now cheap enough to be lost in great numbers. By 1906, Scientific American reported an annual production of 3 million needles per day worldwide, with 300 million purchased each year in the United States alone. Most hand-sewing needles sold in the United States were British-made; Americans never attempted to challenge British dominance of needlemaking.
The needle industry shared the nineteenth century's enthusiasm for variety and details of finish, including gold-plated grooves. Tailors, seamstresses, and home sewers could choose from twelve sizes of "sharps," the most common style, which generally had grooved eyes to keep protruding thread from damaging fabric. There were also nine sizes of "blunts," short and thick needles for fast, uniform stitching by tailors, and a range of "betweens." Crewel needles had larger holes for stranded thread, and other styles were designed for easier work with other yarns and fabrics. For most styles and sizes there was also a range of quality and packaging. On better grades, grooved eyes were gold plated.
Threading (along with corrosion and injury risk) has long been the Achilles heel of needle design. Major nineteenth-century patents attempted to substitute tactile cues for visual hit-or-miss. The Calyx-Eye was open at the top, with two angled prongs that yielded temporarily to gentle pressure on the thread but retained it securely thereafter. Other innovations, like the Eigo and the Filtenax, guided users in threading from the side of the needle or opening the top with the thumbnail. "Primary" needles extended ease of use to schoolchildren, as sewing was still an essential skill for girls of all social classes.
At its peak in the late nineteenth century, the Redditch needle industry was producing fully 90 percent of the world's needs. But challenges were growing. German needlemakers began to assert technological leadership as early as 1850, when the Schumag company of Aachen introduced a machine that stamped and eyed needles in one operation. Even in the early 2000s, German manufacturers dominate sewing machine–needle production. With their concentration on hand sewing, British producers were also hurt by the skill's decline in the household and the school curriculum later in the century, and the factories that British firms built abroad during the empire to serve local needs with inexpensive labor have more recently come back to haunt these firms' successors with low-cost imports. Over generations, the Redditch industry has consolidated into a handful of firms producing premium hand-sewing needles for the world market.
While much of needlemaking has been a mature industry for over a century, the technological frontier continues to move in heavy industrial sewing, where stronger thread and faster machine speeds can heat needles to the point that thread and fabric are damaged. Textile engineers have been using computer models to predict these problems, and their studies are likely to lead to innovations not only in sewing procedures but in the metallurgy, production, and geometry of industrial sewing needles themselves.
Dennell, Robin. "Needles and Spear-Throwers." Natural History 90, no. 10 (October 1986): 70–78.
Gloger, Jo-Ann, and Patrick Chester. "More to a Needle than Meets the Eye": A Brief History of Needlemaking, Past and Present. Redditch, U.K.: Forge Mill Needle Museum, 1999.
Rollins, John G. Needlemaking. Aylesbury, U.K.: Shire Publications, 1981.