Tag Archives: Sewing history

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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