My 3x grt granddad was a Needlemaker, As was a 3x grand uncle. I never really knew much about the subject so I delved into the online world to find out more.

John Beeston was born in Nottinghamshire around 1772. He appears on the 1841 census as a Needlemaker alongside his son John Jr, so presumably he was working from home to make his needles. On the 1851 census John was a retired Needlemaker but John Jr was still Needlemaker.

Henry Lydall b.1831 in Whitwick Leicestershire was also a Needlemaker. He can be found on the 1851 census as an apprentice Needlemaker living with a John Lydall and his family on Belton Street, Shepshed. He travels up country to Nottingham where he meets and marries Lucy Rodgers, his occupation given as Needlemaker. From here he travels to the USA eventually settling in Connecticut where he sets up a needle making company.

Manufacturing wasn't done in mainstream factories, it essentially remained a cottage industry until the early 19th Century when processes were gathered together.

Cottage needlemakers hammered out their own needle stems from wrought iron. But early on in the industrial revolution the ability to 'draw wire' proved to be a great advantage saving a great deal of forging time. The gauge of the wire determined the size of the needle. Pieces of wire cut to the right needle length had to be straightened by rolling on a wooden block. The next stage is to flatten one end on an iron block to make an eye. After this the position of the eye has to be marked with a suitable punch, this is done on both sides of the flat. Finally the eye is punched out on a lead anvil on both sides, whilst the punch is still in the flat the sides are flattened up to both sides of the eye to form a gutter which allows the thread to be guided in. The eye and thread path have then to be cleaned up on a wooden block using a guttering iron. Afterwards, it is given a final clean up. To complete the needle it needs to be pointed using a suitable file on a wooden block.

Needle Making - a break down of stages
  • Cutting: Malleable wrought iron wire cut to the required length.
  • Flattering: Flattening the wires at the head where the eye will be formed.
  • Piercing the eye: Puncturing the flat head to make the eye
  • Cleaning the eye: This includes making the gutter for the thread and filing any flash
  • Pointing the needle: Filing the needle to a point, one needle at a time.
  • Hardening the needle, which included adding some sort of carbon to make the needle harder.
  • Tempering the needles: This is the second stage of heat treatment to give longitudinal strength.
  • Making up for scouring: Wrapping the needles in a roll with emery powder and fish oil.
  • Polishing: Rolling the needles against each other back and forth in the rolls under a lead weight, this can take up to two days, changing the linen and grade of emery powder.
  • Drying: The needles are washed in warm soapy water before being dried in a rotating barrel with warm sawdust.

As the demand for needles grew, methods of mechanisation had to be found to increase production. By around the year 1900 coils of wire of the desired gauge could be drawn by the larger needlemakers themselves or purchased from wire drawers.

A more detailed process

The first stage was to cut the wires to the required length using foot operated shears. Because they had been cut from the coil they were curved and had to be straightened. The stems or wires are arranged in rubbing rings after which they are put in the furnace and heated to redness when hot are transferred to an iron bench where they are rolled for around twenty minutes with a rubbing iron. This action moves the wires around in the rings and straightens them.
Pointing was a very noisy, dirty and dangerous job. Due to the threat of shattering grindstones and the lack of dust extraction. Pointers died at a very early age from pointers lung or silicosis. Even when extractor fans eventually became available pointers wouldn't use them because of the drop in wages [which was the removal of their danger money.] The wires are pointed by hand against a grindstone at both ends. Next the ends have to be flattened and eyed in the middle to make two needles at first hand tools were used which was using a hammer and stamp to make the flat and eye. But then two tools were developed to speed this process up.
The kick press for stamping and the fly press for eyeing.
The kick press had two dies, one in the bed and one in the hammer. These flattened the eyes and made ready for punching out. The fly press now comes into action by punching out the pre marked flats from the kick press operation. The next part is to spit the double eyed stems by threading wire through the eyes to allow multiple needles to be ground at the same time. The spitted needles are now ready for the burr grinder, the burr is very carefully ground down from both sides of the eye until a very smooth finish is achieved. The needles are then broken apart so they can then be ground around the eyes, they are clamped as before and levelled up and the ends ground round.
At this time many of the items made this way were destined to become surgical needles so had to be hand formed around a mandrill to make the curve. They were then sent to be hardened and tempered.

The hardening process up to the early 20th century was as follows. Before the development of carbon steel wire the needles had to absorb the carbon in a process called pieing. The needles were put in a cast iron pot together with carbon in the form of charcoal, carbon black or even crushed bones. The lid was then put on the pot and then heated in the furnace. The surface of the wire would absorb the carbon and, after cooling slowly would become suitable for hardening. The hardening process involved putting the needles on cast iron trays and heating them in the furnace to the correct intensity of redness notably 800 degrees centigrade and then quenching them in whale oil or cod oil. At this stage the needles become brittle like biscuits and certainly not fit for their intended end use. After multiple washings to remove the oil the hardened needles are laid out on a tray for tempering, they are heated to around 200 degrees centigrade before being allowed to cool slowly. This creates strength and rigidity in the needles. The manufacture of the needles is almost complete. The needles are now ready for scouring and finishing.