Several years ago, I published an article here about pins in the Regency. It seems to be time to give the needles of that era some attention. All sewing needles in the Regency were hand sewing needles, since there were, as yet, no commercially available sewing machines. It is important to know that sewing needles were even more expensive than pins during the Regency, due to the intensive labor required to produce them. Though hand sewing needles are widely available today, and relatively inexpensive, such was not the case during our favorite period. Therefore, a Regency author will not want to trivialize the value of any sewing needles which feature in a story set during that era.
Sewing needles through the Regency . . .
Sewing needles are one of the first tools or implements made and used by our ancient ancestors and date back to prehistoric times. Small as they were, they played a major part in the development of civilization by enabling our early ancestors to make garments to clothe themselves, as well as bags in which to carry their possessions. The very first needles were made from thorns, wood, bones, antlers, shells, ivory and much later, from a selection of metals. The earliest needles had no eyes, and were used more like an awl, to punch holes in a skin or cloth through which lacing could be threaded. Over time, a new feature was added to the needle. The end opposite the point was split to carry the fiber used for hand sewing. Most scholars agree that needles with an eye instead of a split appeared about 17,500 B. C. By 7000 B. C., sewing needles were made from copper, then bronze and iron. It is generally believed that the Chinese first made needles from steel, and that the Moors later brought steel needles to Europe in the early Middle Ages, though it took those small sewing implements some time to reach England.
During the late Middle Ages, the best steel needles were made in the German states. It was not until the second half of the sixteenth century, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, that needles are believed to have been made in England. Those first English needles were made by Elias Krause, a German who had emigrated to Britain, bringing with him the secret of needle-making. When Krause died, the secret of needle-making is believed to have died with him. For the next hundred years, needles would have to be imported into Britain from the Continent. By 1650, needles were once again being made in Britain. Christopher Greening and his family, of Long Crendon, in Buckinghamshire, began making needles there in the mid-seventeenth century. Soon thereafter, the needle-makers of London worked primarily in the Whitechapel area. In 1656, during the Commonwealth period, Oliver Cromwell granted Letters of Patent for the incorporation of the Worshipful Company of Needlemakers which was headquartered in the City of London. This guild is still in existence today.
Gradually, the main center of needle-making in Britain migrated from Long Crendon, in Buckinghamshire, to Redditch, in Worcestershire. This was in part to avoid guild restrictions on the growing use of machinery within the industry. Just as important, that area also had an ample and reliable water supply with which to power needle-making machines. In addition, there were many local metalworkers who could turn their skills to the tasks required to make high-quality needles. As the majority of fashionable clothing for both men and women began to be heavily embroidered and more and more garments were stitched together, rather than laced, the demand for sewing needles significantly increased. From the end of the seventeenth century, needle-making continued to be a family and cottage industry, and it is believed that by the mid-eighteenth century, at least 20,000 families were engaged in making needles in the Redditch area. By the turn of the eighteenth century, it is estimated that at least a million sewing needles were manufactured in the area around Redditch each year. That number increased right through the Regency, with the nineteenth century considered to be the golden age of needle-making in England.
Until the later decades of the nineteenth century, steel needles were made by hand. It was a labor-intensive and some times dangerous, even deadly, process. Steel was heated until it was malleable, shaped into a cylindrical form, then drawn through a series of increasing smaller dies until it was brought to the proper gauge from which needle lengths could be cut. Once the drawn steel wire was cut to the correct lengths, those thousands of small wire pieces had to be placed parallel to one another for the next step in the process. This was done by women and children, using a small iron tray with a slightly concave bottom. Each worker would scoop up a small pile of a hundred or more needle lengths with their tray. The tray was shaken from side to side, at the same time also throwing the pile of needle lengths slightly up off the surface an inch or two. When the small wire lengths fell back onto the tray, they would naturally untangle themselves and slide to the concave bottom of the tray in a parallel formation. By this method, hundreds of needle lengths could be stacked parallel to one another in just a couple of minutes.
The parallel needle lengths were then run through a hammer which flattened one end. In some cases, the needle lengths were cut to be long enough for two needles. When they were put through the hammer, the lengths were flattened in the middle. From the eighteenth century, most of the hammers used for this purpose were water-powered. However, by the Regency, some hammers were steam-powered. The wire lengths were heated, then run though another water- or steam-powered drop-hammer machine which punched an eye in the flat end or in the flat middle, which then resulted in two needles. These punches often did not completely remove the punched metal, known as flash, from the needle eye opening. Therefore, these punched needles were then turned over to women and children, known as eyers, who removed the unwanted metal flash from the needle eyes. If the needles were double, they would also separate the two needles. They would then file and polish each needle head and the eye opening so that they were perfectly smooth and the eye would not snag any thread which was put through it. The other end of the needles were then given a rudimentary point by a quick filing.
At this stage, the needles were hardened by heating and cooling, then tempered to increase their tensile strength, usually between four and five thousand at a time. These tasks required great skill with metal and were typically only done by experienced male needle-makers. These men were paid between twelve to fifteen shillings per day. Once tempering was completed, the needles had to be polished or scoured. As many as fifty to one hundred thousand needles were laid out on a sturdy cloth, usually canvas or buckram. Each set, as they were called, were sprinkled with emery dust and olive oil, then the cloth was rolled up and tied firmly with a cord at each end. Several rolled sets were placed on a long, trough-like bench, then a long heavy block of wood was lowered onto them. The sets were then rolled back and forth between the bench and the wood block. The water-powered polishing/scouring mills of Redditch gave the needles such a perfectly smooth finish that needles made in Redditch were considered to be the best needles made in England. This polishing process took two to three days, after which the polished needles were thoroughly washed in hot, soapy water. They were then dried in a large box filled with bran, a desiccant which ensured all moisture was pulled away from the new needles, in order to prevent rust. Once they were completely dry, the needles would be sorted by size, another task typically done by women and children, some as young as three years old. Women in the needle-making industry might earn between five to seven shillings a day, while children were only paid four to six pence per day.
The next, and final, step in the needle-making process was the most dangerous. The clean, polished needles would have to be given their final sharp point. This work was done by men, known as pointers, most of whom could hold as many as fifty to one hundred needles against a grindstone spinning at nearly 2,000 rpm. Skilled pointers were able to finish as many as 10,000 needles in an hour. The needles were held against the spinning grindstone repeatedly until each needle had a fine, smooth and even point. Any defect on a point would render the needle useless. Pointers were typically paid a guinea a day, because their work was quite perilous. Should a grindstone break and fly apart, a pointer could be seriously injured or even killed. Another risk was that slivers of steel could shear off a faulty needle and blind the pointer. However, the greatest danger faced by pointers was an illness known as Pointer’s Rot. This was a fatal lung disease caused by the constant inhalation of the tiny particles of stone and metal which were thrown into the air as the needles were pointed. Most pointers had to lean close to the grinding stone to be sure each needle got a smooth, fine point, so there was no way to avoid inhaling this toxic haze. The majority of pointers got this disease sooner or later and few of them lived beyond the age of thirty-five. During their short lives, most pointers were known to be heavy drinkers and hard brawlers, though they also kept their families in style.
It took between six and seven days to complete a batch of new steel needles. The finished needles were sorted and mounted on small papers, usually ten to twenty needles to a paper. These papers were then enclosed in a sturdy paper packet and were then ready for sale. These final tasks were usually done by women and children. The types of steel needles available during the Regency included sharps or common needles, betweens, blunts, milliners or straw needles, darning, embroidery and tapestry needles as well as bodkins. These needle types were made in a variety of sizes and packets of needles might include one size, or a range of sizes of the same type of needle. During the Regency, some very fine needles had eyes so small that a modern-day thread would be too thick to pass through them. At the other end of the size spectrum, there were bodkins so large that they could carry thick or heavy cording through a casing, such as the bodice of a chemise or nightgown.
Some of those who used needles during the Regency included embroiderers, tailors, dress-makers, milliners, glovers, wig-makers, book-binders, harness-makers, saddlers, sail-makers, and surgeons, as well as industrious housewives and other needlewomen. Packets of fine steel needles, primarily from Redditch, could be purchased from haberdashers and drapers throughout Britain during the Regency. In fact, English needles, made in Redditch, were also exported to the United States and Canada during the Regency, since neither country had yet established their own needle-making industries.
Not all needles available during the Regency were crafted of steel. Large, strong needles made of iron or copper-alloy were also produced. Coarse as they were, these large needles were not suitable for fine or domestic sewing, but were made for specific purposes. Some were used for making or repairing sails as well as fishing or other large nets. Another type, known as "pack needles," were used to stitch up parcels in pack cloth for transport or storage, a practice that remained common well into the middle of the nineteenth century. These large, industrial-grade needles were seldom sold by haberdashers or drapers. They could be acquired at chandlers, hardware shops and other commercial suppliers. Those who used them in large quantities probably purchased them in bulk directly from the manufacturers.
As they had been since the seventeenth century, needles during the Regency were quite costly, even more expensive than were pins during that period. This was due to the fact that they were almost completely hand-made and there were many more steps required in the process to make a needle than a pin. This high cost is what gave rise to that old saying about "looking for a needle in a haystack." Certainly today, no one would take the time to look for a needle which was lost in a haystack, or anywhere else. But when needles were expensive, they were considered so precious that it was well worth the trouble to find one that had been lost, no matter how much effort was required.
[Author’s Note: For those of you who might get the chance to visit Redditch, in Worcestershire, you may want to consider putting a visit to the Forge Mill Needle Museum on your itinerary. This museum is housed in the Forge Mill building, which is believed to have been built about 1730. It is the earliest known water-powered needle-making mill in the region. The sole purpose of this mill was to scour, or polish, needles before they were given their final point. Today, it houses a museum dedicated to the making of both needles and fishing tackle, which were the two primary industries in the region though the nineteenth century.]
Dear Regency Authors, tiny though they are, might a needle or three find a place in one of your upcoming romances? Perhaps the heroine is a keen needlewoman who is staying at a country house. What will happen if she is found by the hero, on her knees, in his mother’s sitting room, seeking a needle she lost when she was embroidering there earlier in the day? Another heroine might be trying to support her young siblings after their father passed away from Pointer’s Rot. How might the hero help her to accomplish that? Then again, a particularly astute needlewoman takes a haberdasher to task when she finds he is trying to sell her sub-standard needles which have not been made in Redditch. Will the hero, standing nearby, be impressed by her knowledge and determination? How else might needles stitch together a Regency romance?