Needles

I ordered longarm needles the other day. It was so easy to do that I could take for granted the availability of sewing needles. But needles have not always been so common.

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Last summer a needle was found in a cave in Siberia. It was a little more than 7 centimeters long (about 3″,) made of bird bone. It is the oldest complete needle found and was made some 50,000 years ago. The maker was not homo sapiens, or even Neanderthal. It was Denisovan, a contemporary species of hominid! Other ancient needles have been found in places ranging from southern Africa to China to eastern Europe.

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Elias Howe, an inventor of the sewing machine, developed the needle with the thread hole at the pointed tip. According to legend, “He had the idea of a machine with a needle which would go through a piece of cloth but he couldn’t figure out exactly how it would work. In his dream, cannibals were preparing to cook him and they were dancing around the fire waving their spears. Howe noticed at the head of each spear there was a small hole through the shaft and the up-and-down motion of the spears and the hole remained with him when he woke.” This dream led to his contributions to the modern sewing machine, circa 1845.

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By 1847 with the introduction of specialty machinery, more than 50 million needles were made each week in the Redditch district of England. These needles were for hand-sewing tasks, and Redditch still specializes in them. (I’ve been looking for information about needle production in the US during the 1800s, but so far haven’t found any.) During the US Civil War, sewing needles became hard to acquire by Southern civilians. The North’s blockade kept most imported supplies from reaching southern ports. Soldiers’ uniforms and bedding took priority for the supplies that could be purchased or made. The lack of needles for civilians meant that repairing old clothing and bedding was difficult, if not impossible.

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On the American frontier, settlers faced deprivations of many kinds. In 1855 the community of Pass Creek Canyon in Wyoming was visited by a peddler named Aaron Meier. He brought his wares to the remote settlers, including fabrics, tools, and candies. But the item they needed most was darning needles, as it had been months since the last one broke. With Christmas coming, the Jewish peddler made a gift of all the needles he had to the women of the community. Aaron Meier later founded Meier and Frank department stores in Portland, OR.

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While England still dominates the production of hand-sewing needles, Germany makes the majority of machine sewing needles. Groz-Beckert and Schmetz are two brands you may know. Here is a fascinating video by Schmetz showing how needles are made.

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Needles are not scarce anymore in the US. There is no reason not to replace them when they’re due. When a needle is dull, it needs to punch its way through fabric layers, making a popping sound. When it is sharp, it doesn’t make that noise. In addition, your machine motor needs to work a little harder with a dull needle, and you may hear the machine laboring.

Experts recommend changing the needle every 8-10 hours of sewing (machine time, not cutting, pressing, and pondering time). That may not sound like a lot, but if your machine stitches 1,000 stitches per minute, that’s actually about a HALF MILLION stitches! While you’re stitching, you may sew through several layers of fabric and batting, and occasionally hit pins. (I do!) Your needle takes a lot of abuse.

Take a look at some great photos by Schmetz Needles USA of a needle that looks sharp. Once magnified with increasing power, you can see the burr on the tip. A dull needle doesn’t do your machine or your project any good.

And please dispose of your needles carefully. I use an empty yogurt cup with a hole poked through the lid. When I get rid of needles, bent pins, and dead rotary cutter blades, they go in there. And the cup is always safely out of reach of children!

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25 thoughts on “Needles

  1. katechiconi

    Although they take far fewer stitches, hand sewing needles can last a whole lot longer. I’ve just used the last needle in a packet I bought in 1981… It still has the original price ticket on it, and the stupidly small cost made me laugh. I do find the quality of needles I can buy here isn’t as good as the ones I could buy in the UK, and this post helps to explain why – I had no idea that England makes most of the world’s hand sewing needles. Most of what I can get in Australia has a little ‘Made in China’ tag on it… and it shows.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I have packages of hand needles from decades ago. Occasionally I’ll have an odd task and sort through them, to decide what one (length? size of eye? heft of shaft?) might suit the situation best. It’s too bad you have poor needles to choose from now. Visitors from UK should each bring you one tiny packet… 🙂

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      1. katechiconi

        That’s an excellent notion (if you’ll forgive the pun) and I may let friends and family know that they have to pay an Australian entry tax of 2 packets of needles when they enter the country…. 🙂

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  2. Shasta

    I remember reading a story as a child, and how precious one single needle was to the family. They took great pains to make sure it was stored properly and not lost. It made a big impression on me, and how even though we have an abundance of needles, I try to appreciate and treat my needles with care.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Oh, yes! Replacing them as needed doesn’t negate the importance of caring for them, as we would (should) any other tool or notion! It does help me appreciate them more, realizing more of their history as well as the technology that goes into making them today. Thanks.

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  3. Judy

    I enjoyed reading your post about needles, it is very interesting. I think I will take better care of my needles from now on, they need respect. I hand quilt so for me the size has too be just right for me.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Much respect for the hand-quilting! That is an art all its own, aside from piecing or applique. And yes, I would think that each quilter would have strong preferences on type of needle. Thanks for reading.

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  4. jmn111

    I buy needles by the hundred when I can and start each new project with a fresh needle. I often change needles halfway through quilting a lap size Quilt.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I’ll admit I don’t switch that often, either for piecing or quilting. But I do use a fresh needle for each “important” quilting project, and I change DSM needles often. After attaching binding to a quilt or two, that needle has taken a pretty good beating.

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  5. TextileRanger

    I have a package of needles from 1857 — I bought them back when I was a reenactor and even as antiques they weren’t expensive, and they were still as good as brand new. And after reading your article, I looked at them, and sure enough, they were made in Redditch!

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  6. allisonreidnem

    Thanks for taking time to research needles, such an interesting post. When I was very new to quilting our local group invited Dawn Cameron Dick to talk to us about needles and threads. Before that I had no idea about choosing the right type and size of machine needle for the project and thread. I do now change needles between projects and when moving from piecing to quilting.

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  7. snarkyquilter

    Sewing machine needles are a constant source of perplexity to quilters, possibly because there’s so much conflicting advice about what size/type to use when. I’ve settled on microtex size 10 or 12 for most piecing with cotton 50 weight thread, and size 8 for invisible thread. Yes, I, too, have ancient packets of hand sewing needles (marked 15 cents!) which I dip into. For me the key is whether I can thread the darn thing.

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  8. Pingback: English Needles from the 1850s | Deep in the Heart of Textiles

  9. KerryCan

    Fascinating stuff, Melanie! I read a book, a long time ago, in which a woman was isolated on a homestead in Alaska. Her needles were so precious that she would only sew while sitting in the middle of her bed, in case she dropped a needle. Reading that made me appreciate my needles a whole lot more!

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  10. Alice Samuel's Quilt co.

    Very interesting read. I don’t give too much thought to needles. I change when they break which is often or when I get the inspiration to change and worse I’m terrible with storing used needles. My husband is constantly warning me about having needles hanging around. My saving Grace is that we don’t have kids yet. I need to start practicing being more careful, thanks for the tip.

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