Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Spiral Eye

At the suggestion of the Dreamstress, I went looking on the Internet a few days ago for information about what sewing needles looked like, and how they were made, after the medieval period.

Alas, I didn't find much detailed information about how sewing needles were manufactured after the Middle Ages, but I did find some interesting facts.

The first of these is that, at least in modern times, there is another eye-shape--the "spiral" eye.  The eye on these needles is actually a kind of a hooked shape, like an upside-down question mark, with an opening on the side of the eye over which you slide the thread.  That way, you don't have to waste time poking the needle at a narrow eye to thread it.  The inventor of this kind of needle, Pam Turner, discusses this innovation, including something of its history, on her website, where you can order her needles, though she has licensed the design and such needles are available elsewhere as well.

I also learned how modern long-eyed needles are made today by machine. (Ms. Turner describes this process on her website too.)  As I described before, medieval needles were made in one of two ways; by punching a round hole in one end of a piece of wire to serve as an eye (and sharpening the other end, of course) or by dividing one end of a piece of wire into two parts, and just soldering them together at the top end to make a long eye. 

Today's needles are made in pairs. A single piece of wire, the length of two needles together, is sharpened on both ends, and the long eyes are stamped in the middle. The two needles are then separated, cleaned, hardened, tempered, and polished. EnTaCo Ltd., a respected British company which claims to have been making needles since 1730, describes the process here and a video they produced showing the process can be found here. EnTaCo's website also gives a bit of post-medieval needle history (without giving details of the changes in the physical manufacturing process, alas!) here. Interestingly, the points are ground by hand (in groups of about 100, using a special holder, but hand-ground nonetheless).  Most of EnTaCo's lines (and probably most other modern needles, for all I know) are nickel-plated steel, but EnTaCo does gold and platinum needles as well, for folk with nickel allergies and for use on delicate fabrics; supposedly the precious metal plated needles glide more smoothly.

I found all of this information interesting, even if it falls short of providing a complete history of the sewing needle.  Maybe I'll dig into this topic more sometime.


  1. Oh thank you! Pity that there isn't more information available though :-(

    Those spiral needles sound interesting. I've used another variant of a thread-hole-less needle, and it was HORRIBLE. I'm not convinced by the spiral needles either. I have no problem with threading a needle yet, so I think I'll stick with the old fashioned kind for now.

  2. Oh, there probably is more information--I just couldn't find any on the Internet. :-)

    There probably is more in books. When I get time, I mean to haul out my encyclopedia Brittanica and see whether I can find more useful information and a start on other places to look.

  3. I found Entaco needles, well Mary Arden in particular to be flimsy and of poor quality.

  4. I can't speak to the quality of EnTaCo needles, or the spiral eye needles discussed in this article, for that matter, since I have never used or purchased either kind. It may be that the Mary Arden brand is just a cheap low end brand, and that that accounts for your bad experience.