Sunday, May 15, 2011

Eye of the Needle Revisited

For many years, I assumed that the design of modern needles--with a long, slit eye on one end--was the epitome of needle design, and that earlier needles had more primitive, round eyes. I also thought that during the Migration Period and the Viking age, most sewing needles were made from bone, and were significantly thicker than modern needles. 

Needles from Coppergate, Rogers, p. 1782
As I read more about period costume and period textile implements and techniques, I learned that the first statement was wrong.  Although bone needles have been found in Viking sites, many of them likely would have been used for crafts such as nalbinding, and not for sewing ordinary clothes.  I also learned, largely from Eva Andersson's Tools for Textile Production from Birka and Hedeby, which describes a large number of Viking era finds from different locations, that most Viking age sewing needles were small, very thin, and made from iron.  That's why many of them did not survive--they rusted to powder in the graves.  Only  the surviving finds of needles inside needle cases, and large collections of needles such as the Roman era find at Magdalensberg , served to give the lie to the "bone needle"  myth.

In reading the copy of Penelope Walton Rogers's book Textile Production at 16-22 Coppergate that I recently downloaded, I learned that finds of needles with long, slit eyes were eventually displaced, in time by punched, round-eyed needles!  Rogers sums up the evidence this way:
There are two types of needle, one with a round eye which has been punched, the other with a long eye made by welding together the tips of a Y-shaped shaft (pp. 542-7, ibid.). The round-eyed needles become increasingly common over the 10th to 11th centuries and have almost ousted the long-eyed needles by the medieval period. It is difficult to establish whether this is a general trend, as relatively few iron needles have been recovered from other sites, but the same two methods of manufacture were noted in twelve iron needles from 8th to 12th century Fishergate, York (pp.1271-2, AY 17/9); only punched eyes were recorded in the iron needles from medieval Eastgate, Beverley (Goodall 1992, 152-3).
Rogers, p.  1781 (emphasis supplied).  Copper alloy needles were also  found at Coppergate; they too might be made with round or long eyes, and as with the iron needles, round eyes became more common over time.  Id. p. 1782.  Interestingly, none of the Coppergate needles look as modern as the long-eyed needles from Magdalensberg, but all of them are fine enough to sew with fabric and thread as fine as that commonly used for clothing today.  The picture below shows a number of both types of sewing needles found at Coppergate.

It is an interesting question why the eye-manufacturing technique changed.  Perhaps there was an increased demand for needles and the welding technique used to make long-eyed needles was too slow and cumbersome to keep up with demand.   Whatever the reason, it is not true that long-eyed needles are necessarily the product of a technologically more advanced culture than are round-eyed needles; I'll never make that particular mistake again.


  1. How fascinating. I wonder how needles changed post medieval era? I remember reading stories about the scarcity of needles in colonial America, and later, in the American West. It seems that the men who planned supply shipments weren't so good at the domestic needs!

  2. I don't really know anything about how sewing needles changed after the Middle Ages. So I started poking around the Internet this afternoon. I didn't find an answer, but I found an interesting modern invention I'll just have to blog about!

  3. I am very interested in the history of needles. The area near Redditch, England supplied around 90% of the worlds hand sewing needles in the latter half of the 1800's. Various steps in needle making were cottage industries - as mechanization came to this area folks were retrained. Before the Great Exhibition in 1851 "someone from India" visited Redditch and taught them needle-making techniques from India. The John James Needle Company site has historical info.

  4. Hi, Birdie! Thanks for stopping by.

    I'll have to check out the John James Needle Company's website, thanks! I wonder if they're at all related to the English company I talk about here.