This section is from the "A Complete Dictionary of Dry Goods" book, by George S. Cole. Also available from Amazon: A complete dictionary of dry goods and history of silk, cotton, linen, wool and other fibrous substances,: Including a full explanation of the modern processes ... together with various useful tables.
Needle. The date at which needles were invented and first used is lost in the darkness of prehistoric times. From Eve with her needle of thorn spikes to the toiling girl of the present the needle has ever been a symbol of the vocation of the weaker sex. The earliest needlework - Eve's tailoring with fig-leaves, the needlework of the Hebrew women, the coat of many colors worn by Joseph, and the benevolent industry of Dorcas - serve as so many evidences of the early use of this necessity of the household. The word occurs in the oldest books, both Hebrew and Sancrit, and needles have been found in caves, mounds and ancient tombs, which facts attest their prehistoric manufacture. The bronze ones found in the Egyptian pyramids are from 3 to 3 1/2 inches long, but what their general size and quality were can only be a matter of conjecture, particularly those used by the Egyptian women in working upon fine linen, which, from the very nature of the work done, must have been of the most minute kind. In Europe prior to the present century needles were luxuries, and not lightly esteemed. The first needles used in England were made of ivory or of metal. In the latter case the eye was formed by looping metal round at the head, so the thread would not slip off when tied. Although such a needle would not bear comparison with the beautiful little instrument with which we are so familiar as to view it, generally with the contempt which proverbially follows great intimacy, yet some good work was done with these clumsy tools. For long ages, from the days when the wife of Edward the Confessor was accounted "perfect mistress of the needle," and when all English ladies were so skilled in embroidery that anything worked with unusual skill received the name of English work, down to the 14th century, the rough old needles were made to play a good part in the production of exquisite needle-work, and did far more work than any of their more finished descendants. Until the year 1818 needles in all European countries as well as in the United States were made by hand, by wire-drawers; and it is a pleasant fact to recall that to our own country the credit is due of the invention of needle-making by machinery. It is probable that there are but few among the hundreds of thousands who buy, sell and use needles who have any idea of the many and various processes the piece of steel goes through before it is ready for the seamstress. There are altogether twelve different processes through which the needle-wire goes before the perfect needle is produced. It is first received on large wooden spools from the wire-drawer, and cut into short lengths and placed in large quantities in regular piles; after which a heavy platform is lowered upon them and worked back and forth over the wires - rubbing them out straight, on the same principle that a bent pin is placed between the sole of the boot and the floor, and by a to-and-fro motion, rubbed out straight. The 'pointing" comes next, being accomplished by placing the wires between a revolving pully and belt. As the pully revolves the wires are also rapidly turned, and coming in contact with a fine grindstone, the points are quickly ground down. After this comes the polishing and then the stamping machine, which flattens the steel around the eye, so that it is very thin. Then the "eyes" are punched through, and taken between the thumb and finger by the workmen and passed over a small grindstone, which removes the surplus steel from the outside edges of the eyes. The tempering of the steel is the next process, large shovels being used on which the needles are laid and held in the furnace until the proper temper is obtained. From here they are taken and thrown into buckets of oil which hardens and at the same time makes them elastic. Then follows brightening the needles, large quantities being placed in chamois skins, filled with oil and powdered emery. They are rolled up and securely tied, and a platform lowered upon the bundles moving them back and forth, rubbing the needles together and by means of the oil and emery, brightening them. To free them from oil they are placed in large pans of sawdust, and shaken until thoroughly dried. A little polishing over a buff wheel then finishes the needle with the exception of the inside of the eye. To do this a large number are threaded upon a small wire which is extremely hard and rough. The needles are revolved (on the wire) at a very high rate of speed, thoroughly brightening the inside of the eye and removing the roughness, which prevents the cutting of the thread. All needles marked "helix" have the eye finished in this way. Many cheap needles are not put through this last process. Girls next stick them into small pieces of cloth. 10 "papers" are tied into a "bunch," 25 needles to the paper, making a quarter of a thousand. They are sold at wholesale at so much per 1,000 needles. Originally needles were made of three distinct shapes: The first short and rather stubby with the point ground down which was rounding, and were called "ground-downs." These are still used to some extent by tailors. The next shape a little narrower and sharper at the point, are termed "be-tweens." "Sharps" are longer, slimmer, and more narrow-pointed. "Millinery" and "straw" needles are still longer in corresponding sizes than any of the above. One-half of the needles consumed in this country are made at Brooklyn, N. Y., the balance being imported from Redditch, England.