Through The Eye of a Needle

The Coronavirus pandemic and lockdown since March 2020 has triggered a big rise in the number of people taking up, or renewing their interest in home sewing, even spawning a new hashtag - #sewcial distancing.

But have you ever stopped to consider how important the sewing needle is in everyday life? The sewing needle has existed, in one form or another, for over 10,000 years. While advances in technology have enabled its production in huge quantities to satisfy a global market, the basic design remains unchanged today.

This Collections Story looks at the sewing needle and its creations – the textiles stitched for pleasure, for profit, and from thrift.

 

Needle packet

Needle packet

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Needlework sample book

Needlework sample book

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Needlework sampler

Needlework sampler

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Smoking cap

Smoking cap

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Embroidered slippers

Embroidered slippers

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Patchwork sample

Patchwork sample

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Toy sewing machine

Toy sewing machine

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Gold work embroidery

Gold work embroidery

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Embroidered jacket

Embroidered jacket

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Beaded dress

Beaded dress

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Mending kit

Mending kit

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Sewing basket

Sewing basket

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Needle packet

Image: Packet of needles, Abel Morrall Ltd., Redditch, early 1900s. HOYFM 2011-53
Packet of needles, Abel Morrall Ltd., Redditch, early 1900s. HOYFM 2011-53

The earliest sewing needles were made of bone or wood. The History collection at the Ulster Museum includes some that date from the 8th century in Ireland. Later sewing needles were often made by local blacksmiths, as finer imports from Europe were very expensive.

The growth of the Factory System in the 1800s contributed to the development of the Redditch area, near Birmingham, England, as the world centre for needle-making. These needle factories employed many women and children in poorly-paid work that was both dirty and labour intensive.

In 1785, when Abel Morrall founded his company there were around 2,000 people employed in the Redditch area, making needles. By 1900 this number had grown to 15,000 and the factories of the Redditch district were producing 90% of the world’s sewing needles – 3,500 million per year. The Flora MacDonald Brand was one of the most popular brands produced by the firm.

In the 1930s the company expanded into the manufacture of a wide range of needles, and haberdashery at their Clive Works in Redditch. A trade catalogue from the time illustrates a dizzying selection of needles, needle packets and cases, crochet hooks and knitting pins, hair grips, safety pins, thimbles and scissors.

Today the last manufacturers of domestic sewing needles in Britain produce approximately 400 million needles per year.

 

Needlework sample book

Image: School needlework sample book, wool on linen, 28cm x 37cms, Dublin, 1849. HOYFM 26 -2010
School needlework sample book, wool on linen, 28cm x 37cms, Dublin, 1849. HOYFM 26 -2010

Two pages of a school needlework sample book, each with a small needlework sampler attached. The two samplers, worked in fine woollen threads on cream linen fabric, show many of the typical features of such work, namely alphabets, floral bands and a basket of flowers motif. The samplers have been neatly hem stitched prior to inclusion in this book which contains examples of other needlework techniques.

The Kildare Place Society was founded in Dublin in 1811. Its full name was The Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in Ireland and its aim was to provide training for teachers, to publish textbooks, and to provide education to Irish children of all denominations. After the 1830s the Kildare Place schools became affiliated to the Church of Ireland.

From the 1830s onwards all schools in the Irish educational system promoted a needlework curriculum which included instruction in dressmaking, patchwork, embroidery, lace making, knitting and crochet. Girls received daily lessons, based on the publications produced by The Commissioners of National Education in Ireland, guided by teachers trained at Kildare Place, Dublin.

These two small samplers show the very high standards achieved by Susanna Heaslip in her 8th year of school.

 

Needlework sampler

Needlework sampler, cotton, worked by Maggie Haslett of Glenarm, 31cms x 31cms. 1908. HOYFM.262.1986
Needlework sampler, cotton, worked by Maggie Haslett of Glenarm, 31cms x 31cms. 1908. HOYFM.262.1986
Needlework sampler HOYFM.262.1986
Needlework sampler HOYFM.262.1986

A small needlework sampler stitched in pink and grey cotton thread on a white cotton fabric. It features an alphabet worked in two styles, numerals, and a short piece of text. The edges have been finished with herringbone stitch in a manner that suggests this piece was not intended to be framed.

This sampler is unusual in that two thirds of it appears to have been stitched in the opposite direction from the rest of the piece. Since the maker, Maggie Haslett of Glenarm, Co.Antrim is believed to have worked as a sewing maid it must be assumed that this design was intentional.

The small coronets on the sampler represent the various levels of nobility, e.g. baronet. Such symbols would have been embroidered on the household linens by the sewing maid or laundry maid.

Cross stitch embroidery was one of a number of needlework techniques taught to young girls at school in Ireland, from the 1830s onwards, to equip them with a range of skills for both the workplace and the home. It is possible that Maggie Haslett’s piece of work was her textile ‘reference’ for potential employers.

 

Smoking cap

Image: Smoking cap (detail) embroidery on wool, 54cm circumference approx.1860 -1880. HOYFM 572-1993
Smoking cap (detail) embroidery on wool, 54cm circumference approx.1860 -1880. HOYFM 572-1993

A smoking cap of red wool, with appliquéd motifs, fine braid and embroidery all stitched by hand in cotton thread. The cap is lined in black cotton and has a long tassel of green and yellow silk threads attached to the cap at the centre of the crown.

Smoking caps, for men, were popular among the middle and upper classes from the late 1850s until around 1890. They are thought to have developed from small fez-like hats brought home, often with Turkish cigarettes, by soldiers returning from the Crimean war (1853 -1856).

Needlework magazines of the late 1800s published patterns for embroidered smoking caps and they were often made by wives and daughters as presents.The caps were worn as leisure wear in the home, to keep the head warm in draughty Victorian houses, and to prevent the smell of tobacco from clinging to oiled hair.

In the Victorian period gentleman dressed their hair with Macassar Oil. In order to prevent this oil from staining upholstered furniture Victorian ladies made small fabric cloths for chair backs, which are known to this day as antimacassars.

 

Embroidered slippers

Embroidered slippers, wool on canvas, 22cms length approx. c.1880. HOYFM.51.2009
Embroidered slippers, wool on canvas, 22cms length approx. c.1880. HOYFM.51.2009
Embroidered slipper detail. HOYFM.51.2009
Embroidered slipper detail. HOYFM.51.2009

A pair of women's slippers, hand embroidered in wool on a linen canvas fabric. The slippers have leather soles and a small (5cm) heel. Such slippers were intended for indoor wear only and were often stitched in kit form, to be made up by a local shoemaker.

Strong, colourfast, synthetic dyes for textiles were developed in Europe from the 1830s onwards, leading to a whole new industry catering for the requirements of those for whom embroidery was a hobby. Brightly coloured woollen yarns were imported from Germany, specifically for embroidery on canvas, which became known as ‘Berlin Wool work’.

Patterns, printed in colour on squared paper, were produced for embroidery on cushions, bags, pictures and shoes. By the 1880s these patterns were published by a number of ladies’ magazines and journals such as Weldon’s Needlework. At the same time drapery shops and haberdashers sold kits and templates for needlework projects in addition to the fabrics and yarn required.

 

Patchwork sample

Image: Patchwork sample (detail showing reverse), cotton, 30cm x 80cm approx.1840 -1860. HOYFM 190-1970
Patchwork sample (detail showing reverse), cotton, 30cm x 80cm approx.1840 -1860. HOYFM 190-1970

A detail of a panel of patchwork (unfinished) hand sewn over paper templates. Made from cotton dress prints, pieced in a pattern of hexagons commonly known as ‘Grandmother’s Flower Garden’.

The detail here shows both the front of the patchwork and the paper templates on the reverse, revealing snippets of handwriting on the scraps of paper used. In the 1800s both paper and fabric scraps were carefully hoarded for recycling.

The needlework curriculum devised for the National school Board of Education in Ireland, after the 1840s, was designed to teach basic sewing, laundry marking and general domestic skills to young girls. Simple patchwork patterns were taught under the heading of ‘plain sewing’.

This small panel may well have been the beginning of a full-sized patchwork bedcover which would have been stitched, piece by piece like a fabric jigsaw, until the required size was achieved. After the patchwork was completed the tacking stitches and paper templates would have been removed and the bedcover lined or backed with another fabric.

 

Toy sewing machine

Image: Toy sewing machine made by F.W. Muller, 15cms x 18cms. c.1890. HOYFM.31.2009
Toy sewing machine made by F.W. Muller, 15cms x 18cms. c.1890. HOYFM.31.2009

A toy sewing machine with spare pack of needles, wooden packing case and advertising literature. The sewing machine is a hand-cranked chain stitch machine of cast iron, made by the German firm of F.W. Muller.

The Muller 10 was marketed as a practical ‘toy’ machine, with an integrated flange to allow it be clamped securely to a table top.The Muller company of Kreuzberg, Berlin, was in business from 1888 to 1978. From 1888 to the early 1900s it was one of many French and German manufacturers of toy sewing machines. For many young women during this period a machine like this was their first introduction to the pleasure of dressmaking.

The packing case is labelled Leigh and Crawford, Brooke Street, London. This retailer was one of many in the early 1900s to offer servicing and repair of toy sewing machines, in addition to selling full-size new machines with all the latest attachments.

 

Gold work embroidery

Image: Gold work embroidery on a silk chasuble (detail), Belfast, vestment length, 110cms approx. c.1930. HOYFM 1236-1994a.
Gold work embroidery on a silk chasuble (detail), Belfast, vestment length, 110cms approx. c.1930. HOYFM 1236-1994a.

This detail shows gold work embroidery on a chasuble (priest’s vestment) from Clonard Monastery in Belfast. The chasuble is part of a set of festal vestments thought to have been made at the Good Shepherd Convent, Ormeau Road, Belfast, in the 1930s.

This chasuble, worn at Easter and Christmas, is in the Roman style, embroidered in gold thread, with gold brocade ribbon, on a background of ivory moiré silk. Moiré is the term used to describe a watermark pattern created on silk using engraved rollers.

The embroidery has been sewn by hand using a couching technique where the lines of metallic thread are applied to the surface fabric and secured by stitches from the reverse. Some motifs have been padded to create a raised effect for added emphasis.

The embroidered motif featured in this detail is that of the Passion Flower, believed to represent the Crown of Thorns.

 

Embroidered jacket

Image: Embroidered jacket (detail of front yoke), silk floss thread on silk, 100cm long approx. at centre front, c.1900. HOYFM.28.2009
Embroidered jacket (detail of front yoke), silk floss thread on silk, 100cm long approx. at centre front, c.1900. HOYFM.28.2009

A detail showing the embroidered front neck and yoke panel on a Chinese jacket of the Qing Dynasty (1644 -1911).

The embroidery has been skilfully hand stitched in silk floss thread on a background of white silk fabric. The embroidered panels on the yoke, jacket front and sleeves have been added to the main jacket body of blue silk.

At the time when this jacket was made, most likely around 1900, embroiderers in China were highly regarded, with their work produced and promoted through a large number of factories and workshops. An elaborate embroidered collar might have taken up to 6 months to complete and elaborately decorated costume was used to display status and wealth.

Embroidered costume often depicted theatrical scenes, traditional folk tales and poems. Bold colours were used for ceremonial costume, softer colours for less formal wear. Traditionally a Chinese bride was expected to wear her best finery to honour her relations during the first year of her marriage.

Many examples of Chinese embroidery were brought back to Europe after the 1880s by tourists and missionaries, as souvenirs.

 

Beaded dress

Beaded dress, glass and steel beads, silk, georgette, cotton thread, 115cms long at centre front, mid-1920s. HOYFM 532-1972
Beaded dress, glass and steel beads, silk, georgette, cotton thread, 115cms long at centre front, mid-1920s. HOYFM 532-1972
Beaded dress (detail). HOYFM 532-1972
Beaded dress (detail). HOYFM 532-1972

A detail of beadwork embroidery, hand stitched on a dress of black georgette (silk) fabric. The dress itself is typical of ‘flapper’ style dresses of the 1920s, designed for the fashionable boyish physique of the period. Sleeveless, and with a plain round neckline the dress reaches to just below knee-length.

The embroidery has been worked in a design known as vermiculate i.e. ‘worm–like’, with a pattern of scattered flower heads worked in solid areas of beading. The glass beads have been secured to the right side of the fabric, in small strands, with stitches worked from the reverse side – a technique called ‘couching’.

The dress is unlined but would have been worn with a matching slip underneath due to the transparency of the fabric. There is no maker’s label on the dress but similar styles were made in Paris during the 1920s in the many ateliers (workrooms) that employed skilled bead embroiderers. The firm of Lesage was among the most famous of these workrooms.

 

Mending kit

Image: A mending kit for hosiery, cotton threads in a branded box, around 1940s. HOYFM 23-2001
A mending kit for hosiery, cotton threads in a branded box, around 1940s. HOYFM 23-2001

A mending kit for hosiery. In a ‘Beatall’ branded box, with 12 kops of cotton lisle thread in assorted natural shades, I shade card, and two handbag-sized cards with yarn on.

With the introduction, from the early 1900s, of commercially produced ladies stockings in natural colours, came the need for handy repair kits to deal with inevitable snags and tears, or ‘ladders’ as they were known.

At the same time mending was considered to be an essential domestic skill and young girls at school were taught how to mend stockings, jumpers and household linens neatly, using a darning technique. Darning was a method of weaving strands of stitching across a tear to replicate the original material of the garment as closely as possible.

During the time of the Second World War the British Government introduced the ‘Make Do and Mend’ initiative, encouraging women to support the war effort by thrifty recycling in dressmaking and needlework.

 

Sewing basket

Image: A straw sewing basket, with threads and pincushion, 79cm circumference x 30cm high including lid, 1910 -1940. HOYFM 540-1987
A straw sewing basket, with threads and pincushion, 79cm circumference x 30cm high including lid, 1910 -1940. HOYFM 540-1987

A sewing basket, with pincushion, and threads for machine and hand sewing. The barrel-shaped basket is woven of straw and cane, with a domed lid.

The small pincushion is made of unbleached linen with a floral motif embroidered on. Pincushions were often stuffed with bran as the natural oil in the grain prevented the needles and pins from rusting.

Most home dressmakers and embroiderers stored their sewing tools and yarns in a sewing box or basket kept especially for this purpose. As sewing machines became more readily available, from the 1850s onwards, manufacturers of threads obliged with an increased range of yarns specifically designed for machine sewing.

The yarns in this image include (in the foreground) a skein of blue thread for embroidery, produced by the firm of Henry Campbell and Co. Ltd., Flax Spinners and Thread Manufacturers of Mossley Mills, Mossley, Newtownabbey, County.Antrim. Campbell’s had been making thread at this site since the 1880s. Linen threads were used for embroidery, tailoring and dressmaking.

Today, stitchers are able to make use of computerised technology developed over the last 60 years for uses as diverse as manufacturing and space travel.

However sophisticated the machinery has become since those early bone sewing tools the two most important components in stitching still remain as..

A maker, and ….

A needle.