Needles: A Slim Subject

By Kandace Merric, NAN-Certified Teacher

This article first appeared in NANthology, the NAN newsletter, in summer 1996.

Ballpoint, beading, between, calyx, carpet, chenille, crewel, curved, darner, doll, embroidery, glove, leather, long darner, milliner, sack, sail, sharp, straw, surgeon, tapestry, upholstery. Did you realize there were so many kinds of needles?

The Latin word for “point,” agus, seems to be the root of the Italian word ago and the French word aiguille for needle. Nere (to spin) is the root of the Old English word noedl and the Dutch naald. Our word needle is based on the Old English word.

The needle was a significant tool in antiquity and is considered by the Indians and Chinese to date from the early existence of man. The Romans attributed the invention of the needle to the goddess Bellona; however, the Indians had tailored and sewn garments two hundred years before her time.

Protection was needed from the elements. Animal skins seemed to be a good solution, but something was needed to join them together. The ancestor of the needle as we know it was likely an eyeless piece of glass that was sharpened to pierce through skins. Sinew could then be pushed through the hole as thread. The front limbs of Pteropus bats, fish bones and thorns could be used the same way. In Africa, palm ribs, sharpened and twisted with thong as cord, were like bodkins.

Prehistoric needles have been found in excavations all over Europe. Bone needles were some of the earliest found during archaeological excavations in southwest France and dated to the Cro-Magnon period (23,000 B.C.). Bronze Age (3000 B.C.) needles were made of bone. They were pointed or hook-shaped with one to four eyes and were passed down as prized possessions.

Copper was produced five thousand years ago, so there may have been metal needles at that time. The Egyptian tombs of four thousand years ago contained iron and bronze needles. Bronze needles are thought to have made their way to England around 100 B.C. A needle maker may have been in each community, as the needle was an important tool of civilization.

The first written reference to needles was in documents from the 12th Century. Marco Polo wrote of them in the 13th Century. Evidence of needle making in its most conventional style was found in ecclesiastical centers and monasteries throughout England. During the Middle Ages, medieval wire workers were controlled by religious houses. Bordersly Abbey, Iocated about a mile to the north of Redditch, is thought to be the earliest cloister of this trade. When the Abbey surrendered to King Henry VIII during the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538, it is presumed that the monks continued this trade in the neighborhood. At the same time, needle making was also becoming established in London.

There are several theories about the origin of steel needles. The most likely is that the Chinese created the needle, which was later brought to Europe by the invading Moors, who displayed them as part of their advanced Islamic technology. Needles appeared in all the European countries in the 14th Century, imported from the Middle East. All needles mentioned in the documents of that time were referred to as coming from Damascus, the capital of Syria; Antioch, in Asia Minor; and Adrianople (the ancient name of Edirne, Turkey), a town which at that time had some half-million inhabitants and had been the capital of a Latin stronghold of the Crusaders at the end of the 11th Century.

Once steel needles became available for purchase, the main centers of manufacturing were located in Spain and Italy with their links to Moorish production. Europeans believed that the best needles were from Cordova, Spain and the Italian cities of Milan, Naples and Padua. Their reputation would last for centuries. They were next produced in Nuremberg, Germany (1370).

By the 16th Century needles had become commonplace. In the 1560’s Queen Mary of England brought a Moor from Spain to London and established him as a needle maker to encourage the production of needles. However, his skills were not passed on. Elizabeth I was more successful in her endeavor as she offered religious tolerance to French Huguenots, if they trained to make needles. Workshops were opened in Old London Bridge and Needlers’ Lane. Old maps show the Needlemakers’ Hall standing on the site of the present Bank of England in Threadneedle Street. The name is thought to be derived from three needles.

In 1565, a powerful group of needlemaking companies were granted a Charter of lncorporation by Cromwell. Eight years later, Charles II confirmed it. The Coat of Arms of the Worshipful Company of Needlemakers has a Moor’s head crest with a man and woman, known as Adam and Eve. The woman holds a needle. There are three needles on the shield. In 1666, after the Great Fire, many craftsmen left London. Some settled in Long Crendon in Buckinghamshire, where they successfully made sail, pack, surgeon and upholstery needles. Others left for Redditch, which was to become the major center of the needle industry for the western world. In the Redditch district, needle making has been carried on for over three hundred years as their staple industry.

Needle making was a cottage industry during the Industrial Revolution. Merchants supplied families with raw materials and tools. The families returned the finished product to the merchant, who then sold the finished article. Needles were necessities-expensive necessities.

Near the end of the 1700’s some families began to specialize in perfecting one of the many processes needed to create a needle. This specialization slightly increased production and lowered costs. The process of scouring, polishing by hand, was a long and hard one. It was helped considerably by the development of water mills expressly adapted for this process. Production was greatly increased, quality improved and cost was again decreased.

Redditch monopolized needle making in Britain due to its skill in the scouring process. Eventually, it supplied 90% of needles worldwide. Specializing in scouring, Forge Mills in Redditch was in operation by 1730; it continued to operate until 1958. It is now the National Needle Museum, with a display of scouring machinery.

Britain became the greatest needle center in the 19th Century. Many European nations wanted to buy and use English steel needles; nothing else would do! French documents of that time tell of aiguilles d’Angleterre. England did have some competition in Germany. However, the Germans produced their own “English” needles by using the best machinery imported from England.

The three largest English firms were Milwards, established in 1730; Morrall, established in 1750; and Hall, established in 1842. By 1900, sixty other smaller firms were part of these three. In 1930 Milwards and Hall merged to become Needle Industries Group Limited. Morrall, who made Aero needles, merged with them in 1984. The new company became Coats Viyella PLC.

The United States had not developed a real needle industry by the First World War. They, too, needed and wanted English needles. Needles were also imported from France, Germany and Japan.

The original English wrappers were kept on the pack as a point of prestige. United States patents were secured for the needles and the wrappers for export to the United States by the English needle makers.

Needle wrappers became a very popular way of advertising. Transportation companies, grocery store chains, insurance companies, sewing machine and fabric stores, dairies, hotels, candidates for public office, and even the World’s Fair and dirigibles had wrappers created for needles to be given away. Needle packets were so inexpensive that advertisers gave them away just as American hotels and restaurants gave away matches.

For nearly two hundred years needle making remaining unchanged, except when machinery replaced hand work. Millions of needles are still made today. Milwards produced a million a day in 1890 and thirty-five million a week in 1950. However, it is purchased, but unused, needles that boost collector’s profits; old packets with their original wrappers and needles intact have extra value. England still manufactures most of the hand sewing needles for the world. The United States produces most of the sewing machine needles.

A slim subject, indeed.


Gullers, Barbara D. Antique Sewing Tools and Tales. Arizona: Gullers Pictorial Partnership, 1992.

Houart, Victor. Sewing Accessories: An lllustrated History. London: Souvenir Press, 1984.

Johnson, Elizabeth. Needlework Tools. London: Shire Publications, 1978.

Proctor, Molly. Needlework Tools and Accessories. London: BT Batsford, 1990.

Rogers, Gay Ann. An lllustrated History of Needlework Tools. London: John Murray Limited, 1983. Whiting, Gertrude. Old-Time Tools and Toys of Needlework. New York: Dover Publications, 1971.