I mentioned at the end of last year that I would like to revisit some of my previous facts of the week and expand on them. This week, needles – which were the subject of June 25th’s fact.
One of the reasons the invention of the sewing machine took a relatively long time was because inventors were trying to mimic hand sewing, where the needle passes entirely through the fabric and has its eye at the top end. Once it was realised that a machine needed to work differently and that the eye should be at the sharp end, all became clearer and easier.
But of course the needle had come through a lot of changes before the sewing machine was even considered.
Interesting facts about needles (yes there are some, honest!):
- The Spaniards were originally the masters of needle making (probably inheriting the secrets from Islamic needle makers). These were the same skilled artisans who made the famous Toledo swords.
- The Spanish brought the craft to England in the sixteenth century and until then needles here had been crude and rough, usually made by a blacksmith.
- The method of drawing the wire to make needles was kept secret, so wire had to be imported to England from Spain
- The small town of Redditch in Worcestershire became world famous for its high quality, handmade sewing needles
- In the mid-16th century English craftsmen learned to draw the wire themselves and it was no longer necessary to import it
- by the 18th century around a million needles a year were being manufactured here.
- By 1824 around five million needles were being hand made in the Redditch area per week and by the time of the industrial revolution, with its machinery and new methods, this number increased to 50 million.
- At this time there were no other countries producing needles, which meant that most of the sewing carried out anywhere in the world utilised an English needle
- Once Elias Howe had invented the sewing machine, it was of course necessary to manufacture needles for the device. American manufacturers began to take up the challenge
- Wire was imported to America from England until the 1880s, when Massachusetts and Pennsylvania manufacturers perfected the art of wire making
- When the Singer model 15 was first produced in 1895 the flat-shank needle was introduced, making it easy to set the needle correctly. This was gradually adopted by nearly all manufacturers and has become the industry standard, still called the 15×1 today
Because of the precise nature of a needle, manufacturing is still quite complicated and involves a whole host of different processes. A needle needs to be perfectly straight, perfectly smooth, perfectly pointed and extremely strong while maintaining an element of flexibility. It could be said that the needle is the most important component of a sewing machine – the whole machine is just an elaborate contraption for getting that needle through the fabric to form a stitch! This is why I often remind you to change your needle regularly – a sewing machine might be functioning perfectly well but a blunt, bent or burred needle could still mean you will not be able to get a good stitch from it.
The ‘hints’ page in every Singer manual (what we might these days call trouble shooting’) is pretty clear about this:
Apologies for the poor quality of those images!
I have a copy of a film made at the Kilbowie factory in 1934 which shows the process of needle making at that time. I can hardly believe that each needle was re-straightened after going through the manufacturing process BY HAND using a small bronze mallet. When you consider that the factory must have been turning out close to one million machines a year at that point, imagine how many needles were being hammered straight! What is equally staggering to me is that even today, at the big needle factories, each needle is subject to a visual inspection before being packed. That is how important your needle is!
You can watch a film about the manufacture of hand sewing needles here.
And one about machine needles here. You might want to skip the long introduction on this one, and it’s a bit repetitive, but worth a look.
Finally, if you are interested in the Singer Kilbowie factory, take a look at this at The National Library of Scotland.
Apart from anything else, needle packaging can be very attractive and they are an affordable thing to collect if you like the graphics, as I do.
Here is a selection from my collection – apologies that I have featured some of them before:
And I do have a number of different Singer packets from different eras. Note the 12×1 package in the first image – before 15×1 became standard. I am fond of the packet on the card backing because it so reminds me of having to learn the new decimal coinage in 1971. We played endless games of ‘shop’ that year!
I must just remind you all that the exhibition “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams” opens at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on 2nd February and runs until 14th July. It will be a stunning exhibition – I saw it in Paris in 2017 and can’t wait to see how the V&A will present it.
Have a happy day