A Passion for Needles

12th June 2020

Without needles, there would be no embroidery. They are the most important tool in our toolbox. This deceptively simple item has, over millennia, changed not just the world for needleworkers, but the world in general.

Prehistoric sewing needles – photo by Didier Descouens (source)

Some of the earliest examples of needles include ones made from bone, antlers and tusks. These were most likely used to sew animal hides together and create clothing which was key in enabling our ancestors to move to cooler regions after the last Ice Age and thereby begin their spread across the world.

The first needle to have an eye was believed to have been created in Europe during the Gravettian period, with metal needles first appearing in Armenia. But by then, the needle was essential for human survival thanks to its use in medical applications, not just as a tool for early textile production.

For many years leading up to the 16th Century, the secret of needle production was possessed mainly by the Islamic world which was then inherited by Spain during the Moorish period. 

By the 1500s, the Spanish brought the skill to Britain. Once there, it didn’t take long for the industry to grow, particularly in the town of Redditch, Worcestershire, which achieved global recognition for its needle production.

Needlebook from ‘Christmas Spirit’ | Inspirations issue #104

Initially, needles were made by hand in a highly laborious process. This was why needles were so precious. There was no jabbing them into the arm of the sofa while you went to make tea! Needles at the time were carefully protected in special cases that women attached to their belts. 

When the Industrial Revolution arrived, needle production was mechanized. Like most things, it meant large numbers of needles could be created for much lower cost, although the health cost was steep.

The average life expectancy of a factory ‘pointer’ (someone who sharpened needles) was 35 years due to the inhalation of metal and grindstone dust, not to mention the tendency to store needles in asbestos powder!

The sacrifice of these poor souls meant that needles became cheap enough to be able to lose frequently. Nowadays, this industrial automated process – which thankfully has improved since the 1850s – means most of us possess a great number of needles both in our kit and lost down the sofa.

Modern needles are made of hard carbon steel wire and coated with nickel, 18K gold plate or, for the best embroidery needles, a combination of platinum and titanium alloy. This means they are strong and durable and generally rust resistant. However, this doesn’t mean you can now leave your needle in your work for long periods of time! The risk of staining and corrosion is always there, particularly from cheaper needles.

There are multiple sources available online to tell you exactly which needle to use for what. However, there are some general rules.

Firstly, consider your fabric. If your fabric already has holes, i.e. linen, aida or evenweave, and you’re doing some form of counted embroidery, you should use a blunt needle. This ensures the needle will naturally find the hole rather than making its own. If you are working on fabric without holes, you’ll need a sharp needle.

Once you’ve determined that, the next question is size. 

As a general rule, choose the smallest needle you can which will allow your thread to pass through the eye without damage.

However, it can’t be so small that the hole it makes in the fabric is inadequate for the thread to pass through smoothly. Too much friction with the fabric will mean a shredded thread.

On the flip side, if you choose a needle too big – and this goes for both sharp and tapestry needles – it will create a larger hole in the fabric than you need, resulting in an unsightly gap or distortion. 

Think of Goldilocks – not too big, not too small.

Other than these two rules, there are guidelines about when to use a crewel or embroidery needle, or when to use a chenille or quilting needle, but probably the best suggestion is to simply use the needle you are most comfortable with. 

If you like doing embroidery with a quilting or between needle, as long as it adheres to the first two rules, that’s fine. If you are comfortable working bullion knots with a crewel needle rather than a milliner’s needle, then that is fine too. 

Ultimately, you should use the right needle for you – one you can thread, you can hold, and you can love.

Loving your needle is an essential part of gaining joy from your embroidery. Think of the wonderful Japanese tradition of Hari-Kuyō or the Festival of the Broken Needle. This 400-year-old annual festival allows stitchers to take the time to acknowledge their work and respect their tools. The Japanese place importance in ‘paying honour to small things’ and regard all objects, including needles, as having souls.

Needlebook from ‘Gloriana’| Inspirations issue #98

We don’t know about you, but there’s something lovely about the idea of our needle possessing a soul. We work so closely with it, and through it we pour our passion and love onto the fabric, so it seems appropriate to imagine that it works in harmony with us, just like a trusted friend.

If you are interested in some further reading on the history of needles, you might like to check out the following articles:

History of Needles of Sewing

The Sewing Needle: A History Through 16-19th Centuries

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