Today I had to hem a pair of pants. The process involves a measuring tape, pins, swearing, iron and ironing board, needle and thread.
Such an ordinary thing, a needle. I ply the same sort of needle my grandmother used, and her grandmother. And that’s what got me to peruse my shelves for a little volume Shire Books sent me a while ago, titled, aptly enough, Needlemaking.
It includes pictures of bone needles that look pretty much the same, albeit a bit rougher, than what I use. The needle is one of those very simple, brilliant inventions that don’t need to change—and needles haven’t, except in what they’re made of: over time that changed from thorn to wood to bone to metal.
Needles have to be made from a material that’s pliable to work with, but the finished product has to be hard as well as flexible. Because steel was considered too hard to work, the metal of choice until the 1500s was iron—certain types of iron, preferably from hematite. As the illustration, with its numerous steps and tools, indicates, making needles was hard, exacting work. Yet women engaged in the trade as well as men.
In the Tudor period, Spanish needlemakers who’d fled religious persecution brought to England the Arabs' secret method for making steel needles. Called Sprior needles, they were highly prized.
English literature students may be familiar with a play titled “Gammer Gurton’s Needle," about a village hunt for a missing needle. (Think Marx Brothers go Tudor.) I remembered reading it, but not much about its significance, so I was charmed to learn that it was “the first comedy ever to be written in England”—and it was about a missing “goodly Sprior needle.”
This is just a sample of the fine Nerdy History Girl fare this book offers: fascinating historical tidbits as well as detailed information about needlemaking throughout British history, lots of illustrations (b&w), a glossary, and the usual suggestions for further reading and places to visit—all the good stuff one expects from the Shire Library.
John G. Rollins (pictured on cover of book), Needlemaking, Shire Library
The Needlemaker by Jost Amman (1568), courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Scan of page from Needlemaking, courtesy me.
In accord with some FTC rule or other (which probably doesn’t apply to us, since we're not reviewers, but never mind), you need to know that, unlike the majority of books referred to in this blog, which Susan and I buy with our own hard-earned cash, this little gem came gratis.