Friday, 3 July 2009

Steel Needles, Take Two

Yesterday's post is the first to accumulate its comments so fast, and the questions have prompted me to stay with the topic of needles for a second post.

Pins and even more so needles are an archaeological problem - because... yes, you have guessed it: they are so small. This means that unless there is a nest of pins or needles (like we once discovered in a church excavation on the women's side of the aisle, pins upon pins upon pins, probably lost during service and not retrievable, because they fell through the spaces between wooden floorboards) or unless there is a huge stroke of luck, these tiny metal rods will never be found. If they ever survived the corrosive surroundings in damp soil, that is - something that iron or steel might not take as kindly as copper alloy. And then these rare items are so much overlooked - because duh, of course they had needles, that's an everyday item, isn't it? - that there is no collation of needle articles or archaeological needle knowledge yet.

So LH folks today are faced with a problem: What to sew with? Which time knew what kinds of needles or other sewing implements? (And archaeologists as well, should they want to write about needles.)

We have two possible ways to find out what needles were in use. One way is to find surviving specimens, analyse them, and if possible make some replicas and try them out. That, of course, is a really nifty way - only quite difficult because of the scarcity of finds and (you know the sad song by now) because it's oh-so-hard to find published needles.
The other way is by deduction. Nobody can tell me that medieval people (or people in what age soever) bought extremely costly materials like gold thread and fine silk to weave enormously fine fabrics and embroider them all over with beautiful, awe-inspiring motifs using a (needle) bodkin (for the Germans: "Nähdolch" is the term. The term.) and dragging this huge metal abnormity through their costly fine fabric! Fine fabrics require fine tools, after all. And at least I have not had much fun running my well-beloved copper alloy sewing needles through linen or silk instead of wool; they are just not suited to these. So fabric type makes a difference, too.
Deduction, though, will only tell us that some fine needles must have been there, out of due necessity, but no more than they must have been suitable for this or that work and material. So it's back to no. 1 for harder evidence.

There are a few needles in my picture collection, so I bring to you: The Needle Parade!

First, from the glorious and long-past 3rd and 4th century, needle boxes and needles on one of my bad photographs, taken in the Historical Museum Oslo, viking section.

Next finds from Konstanz (Lake Constance), from the 14th century, an array of small things including sewing needles. From LANDESDENKMALAMT BADEN-WÜRTTEMBERG und STADT ZÜRICH (Hrsg.): Stadtluft, Hirsebrei und Bettelmönch. Die Stadt um 1300. Stuttgart 1992. P. 433.

Everybody knows this copper needlecase missing its lid, from the late 14th century London. It still contained an iron needle - and that needle size would match a modern sewing needle. From CROWFOOT, ELISABETH, PRITCHARD, FRANCES und STANILAND, KAY: Textiles and Clothing c. 1150-c.1450. Medieval Finds from Excavations in London:4. London 1992. P. 151. There you go:

From a special exhibition in the Alamannenmuseum Ellwangen, a needle from the graves at Kirchheim/Ries. My photo, taken with kind permission. It lacks scale, but I would use a needle like that in daily life without finding it special. Graves at Kirchheim/Ries date to the early middle ages, between 6th and 8th century if I remember correctly.

Again from the 14th century: Needles and thimbles from Copenhagen, National Museum, photo taken in the Medieval Section. If you come to Copenhagen, make double sure you visit that wonderful museum - reserve a full day for it, if you can. It is worth it.

That's all I have gathered together during the years - but at least it shows steel sewing needles from as early as at least the early middle ages. If any of you have more needles, please give me a hint - I'm collecting evidence ; )


Louise Schelde said...

I have several picture or knowlegde of finds from other danish museums. There are also one or two articles of find of a production site in Aalborg from the 13th century, and needlefinds from two or three monestaries.

I´ll see if I cant find the pics and the titles of the articles.

cathyr19355 said...

I don't have pictures, unfortunately, but Eva Andersson's book "Tools for Textile Production from Birka and Hedeby" discusses the substantial number of fine needles discovered at those sites. You can buy a copy here (scroll about halfway down the page) and probably through various book dealers as well.

cathyr19355 said...

I failed to note: the needles discussed in Ms. Andersson's book are from 9th-10th century CE Scandinavian finds.

Anonymous said...

I once found on more information about the Birka needlecases and needles - "Many needlecases have been found at Birka - 69 from graves, and another 71 in the surrounding area (Black Earth; Andersson 2003). The length of these needlecases ranges from 40-80mm, and most are 50-70mm. Of the 69 grave finds, 38 contained up to 5 metal needles. Most contained textile remnants, often unspun wool, used to hold the needles in place, since none of these needlecases had caps (MacGregor 1997). The Birka finds, and Viking needlecases in general, were usually bone or copper alloy, although there were two silver needlecases found at Birka (Anderson 2003)."

I also found a needlecase with needles dating to Anglo-Saxon Kent. The needlecase was 92mm long. The needles were 41mm and 42mm with the eye broken off. 'Kingston Down Grave 222:3.M6336 Two copper-alloy needles, Novum Inventorium Sepulchrale: Kentish Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods in the Sonia Hawkes Archive, July 2007, Ist Edition,, Accessed 04 July 2009.

Also in the same digital database, a silver needle from 'Sarre Grave 4:28. KAS 333 White-metal needle', the needle was 55mm long, but both the eye and point were broken off. The needle was round sectioned. (for some reason the openID isn't working for me today.)

Anonymous said...

C. Beaudry "Findings: The Material Culture of Needlework and Sewing" - I thin you may find this book interesting. It' available for preview in google books.

a stitch in time said...

Thank you all for your comments, hints and book suggestions! I will hunt down the books and other sources as soon as I have some time for research again (which, however, might take some time, unfortunately...)