Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Eye of the Needle

As I look at my charming little needle case, I often wonder how it is that such utilitarian items come to have such interesting artwork. Today's needles are very sterile by comparison. Was it that people in previous times honored these utilitarian objects to the point of creating art of it?

The earliest sewing needles, found in southwestern France and dating back to 28,000 BC, did not have an eye but a split end which gripped the thread to be sewn (often raffia, gut or sinew). They were made from bone or antlers. and used to sew animal skins. By 17,500 BC needles had the two features characteristic of the hand sewing needles today - the eye at one end and the tapering point at the other end. In Ancient Egypt, needles made from copper, silver and bronze were used. The oldest iron needle, dating back to 3rd century B.C.E. known was found in what is now Germany. Although there is no positive evidence as to the precise design of these needles, pre-Christian era embroidery pieces of extremely high quality suggest that they were likely nearly perfect in design. During the Middle Ages, bookbinders and shoemakers used needles made from hog bristles in the Middle Ages. Native Americans used porcupine quills and the pointed end of agave leaves for sewing needles, and the fibers of the agave were used for thread.

By the 11th century, Muslims in space had perfected metal needle making. Spanish Muslims were some of the most knowledgeable medical doctors in the world at the time. Theyhad perfected many surgical techniques that required needles for suturing.

In the 15th century, the Muslims were driven out of Spain, taking the knowledge of needle making with them to Arab lands. There the Muslims returned to making needles, and Arab traders took them to Europe.

By the 17th century, needle making was brought to Europe through Muslim needle makers. Before that time, local European blacksmiths made crude metal needles. By the mid 17th century, European needle making skills in England were also used to make fish hooks for which the country became well known.

Before the industrial age, needles were hand crafted. The process began with cutting wire long enough to make two needles. Next, points were ground on either end of the wire, the wire was flattened in the middle and eyes punched out, and ghe needles were finally separated.

Needle making machines began producing needles in 1850 and turned needle making from a cottage industry into an industry done in factories. By 1866 English factories made 100 million needles annually. The English town and district of Redditch in central England became the center of the world's needle production in the 19th century, and it continues to this day.

For a wonderful video of the process of making needles, you can  go to

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