The History and Uses of Needlework Tools

Needlework tools have an illustrious history. They were invented out of necessity, and have been in existence for thousands of years. Today, we take the basics for granted as everyday commodities, but through the centuries, they became scarce, expensive, and frequently worthy of being included in wills and inventories. A sewing basket would contain such basic items as pins, needles, thimbles, and scissors, but kept in special cases, workboxes, or “pockets” were such highly prized treasures as bodkins, measures, shuttles, bobbins, awls, stilettos, emeries, etuis, pincushions, pinballs, “sewing birds,” and chatelaines.

I have chosen a few of the most commonly used needlework tools for descriptions of their origins, history, and uses:

PINS.  Early pins were crafted of thorns, spikes, fish and animal bones, or the shaft of a bird’s feather. They were long and thin, some 3″ to 8″ in length, and used to fasten, support, or attach items, much as we use them today. Early Greeks and Egyptians created ornamental pins, made from bronze, precious metals, and gold with beautifully carved heads depicting kings and gods. Egyptians used pins to fasten down the eyelids of the dead prior to mummification.

In the 15th century, France was considered the major producer of pins.   In 1483, English king Richard III prohibited the importation of pins to England. They were re-introduced by Catherine Howard, fourth wife of King Henry VIII. In 1543, a statute was passed entitled “An Act for the True Making of Pynnes,” stipulating that the price should not exceed six shillings and eight pence per thousand. The annual amount spent on the importation of pins by Queen Elizabeth I was 3,297 pounds or approximately $290,000 in 2020 USD.

By the 18th century, the manufacture of pins required eighteen distinct operations performed by specialists for each phase. A team of ten men was needed for production, making 48,000 pins per day!

By the 19th century, pins became very decorative. Enamels, Venetian glass, beads, and sealing wax were painstakingly affixed at great expense to create heads for pins. The simpler and less expensive way was to twist a fine wire around the opposite end to the point, but it often fell off. In 1824, the American Lemuel Willman Wright invented the device of driving one end of the pin into a mold, where it spread out, forming a head all in one piece with the pin itself, the method used to this day. It is estimated that the U.S. produces over 50 million pins a year and over 4 million pins a day are lost or destroyed worldwide.

“Pricking her fingers with those cursed pins —

Which surely were invented for our sins —

Making a woman like a porcupine,

Not rashly to be touched”.  —Lord Byron

BODKINS. Bodkins, or tape needles, were another indispensable tool for a needlewoman. They were blunt, thick needles of varying lengths used for drawing tape, cord, or ribbon through holes or channels, such as hems of clothing. There are references to the use of bodkins by Egyptians as early as 5500–3500 B.C.E., and they were in general use by 1386 C.E. Early bodkins were quite primitive, made of wood, bone, or materials such as walrus teeth, but by the 18th century, they had become quite ornate and were made of steel, sterling silver, and ivory. They became lavishly decorated, sometimes with precious gems, and could be monogrammed or engraved and set in velvet-lined leather cases. These were a treasured item in a lady’s sewing basket. A typical use of a bodkin is evident in examples of nineteenth-century eyelet embroidery on baby clothes, christening gowns, and fine embroideries of the period.

“There are quaint long needlecases; some are carved; one very uncommon one is of bone, covered with a fine network of beads; these hold silver bodkins beautifully engraved.”

The Cult of the Needle, Flora Klickman

AWLS. Awls were invaluable, and potentially dangerous, tools in a needlewoman’s possession! They consisted of a shaped wooden handle attached to a long sharp, finely pointed steel shaft. It was used for piercing holes in fabric, through which a bodkin would thread tape or ribbon. Their origins are traced back to England and Germany in 900 C.E., but references have been made to awls in Sanskrit, so they may have been in use since 1200 B.C.E.

Awls have been used through the centuries in many ways, primarily for piercing holes in leather, skins, and wood as well as fabric. In the 19th century, embroiderers treasured the dainty and ornate ones made of bone, silver, or ivory. By the 19th century, they, like bodkins, became richly decorated and would be kept in a lady’s collection close by her bodkin. In the world of needlework, their use has faded into obscurity, but they are highly sought after by collectors.

“That other signet of gold, with my puncheon of ivory and silver, I give and bequeath unto Robert my secunde son.”    —Chronicles 1, Fabyan

NEEDLES. The earliest needles are known to have existed 60,000 years ago. They were made of bones from birds and were found in South Africa. Other early bone and ivory needles were found in China, Slovenia, and Russia, dating back to between 45,000 and 30,000 years ago. Of course, we know that needles are recorded in Biblical times and down through the centuries. Early needles did not have eyes. They were made of solid wood, bone, or anything from limbs of bats and fish bones to plants offering seeds, spikes, thorns, and palm fronds, and used in much the same way as awls.

The first needles with eyes were recorded 25,000 years ago, when threads were often the sinews of animals. They were considered an absolute necessity, a basic tool for the survival of early people and were used mainly for the construction of clothing and coverings made from skins and furs.

Needles as we know them were made of steel and are said to have been introduced into Europe by the Moors, their usage established in Germany as early as 1370. They were introduced into England by Queen Elizabeth I in 1560. The process of making these essential tools involved the selection of wire, which was measured, evenly coiled into 8-foot lengths, then divided, each half of which would make 100 little pieces. These were cut into double lengths, which were then pointed. The points were then squeezed flat at one end, to flatten the surface for drilling the eye. “Eyers” could punch 25,000 eyes in one workday! The needles were then polished and packaged in “papers” of 20, 50, or 100. England started producing needles in the 17th century and is still the major manufacturer of fine needles today. Modern machinery produces 300,000 needles daily!

Needles come in many sizes, lengths, and thicknesses and generally fall into three categories—sharps, blunts, and betweens. Sharps are the most common, with a very sharp point, used for most types of hand-sewing, embroidery, and needlework. Blunts are shorter and thicker, with a less sharp point, used for tapestry, needlepoint, and other mediums not requiring fine piercing. Betweens are the shortest, thinnest, and sharpest, most frequently used for quilting and for the repair and restoration of antique and fragile textiles.

By the middle of the 19th century, needlework tools had become both sophisticated and collectible. The Nantucket Historical Association possesses some magnificent examples of “fancyworke” wrought with the tools I have described. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when these skills were an essential part of a young lady’s education, sewing baskets, boxes, etuis, chatelaines, and other necessities, whether plain, practical, or exquisite were respected, revered, cherished, and handed down from generation to generation. Treasures worked with skill using these tools have endured through the ages. They are as fine an art as a painting or a sculpture and worthy of our admiration.

“Take your needle, my child, and work at your pattern; it will come out a rose by and by. Life is like that—one stitch at a time taken patiently and the pattern will come out all right like the embroidery.”

                                    —Oliver Wendell Holmes

During the past winter months, I have had the privilege of working “behind the scenes” in the extensive and remarkable textile collection of the Nantucket Historical Association under the guidance of Dan Elias, Robyn and John Davis Chief Curator. The work involved cleaning and preparing clothing and accessories for presentation and display in the Whaling Museum and the Hadwen House. Over forty pieces were chosen for this year with the assistance of Liv Wisnewski, a summer 2019 intern. The task of cleaning, hand-washing, and pressing some of the delicate pieces of clothing began in January 2020. The owners of many of these pieces are well documented. As each piece was examined and assessed, one could not help but marvel at the skill and patience of the seamstresses and embroiderers of the 18th and 19th centuries, given the often simple tools which were at their disposal prior to the development of sewing machines. Their intricacy, beauty, and design are worthy of our admiration, and are an important part of the NHA’s collection of treasures, although, due to current restrictions, their presentation may be postponed until next year.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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