Bone Sewing Needles (a brief history of…)

The humble sewing needle needs no introduction. Everyone has likely seen one used or has used one to sew that damn hole in your favourite sock! Sewing needles and clothing go hand in hand. Without the use of a sewing needle, early man would be still wearing his crude jocks around his ankles!

Our modern sewing needle is the direct descendent of the flint or bone needle (awls) used by humans thousands of years ago. The first needles would have likely been made by using a flint tool. Splinters of bone would have been cut out and trimmed roughly into a pointed shape. The crude needle was probably then polished smooth with sand, water and a soft stone rubber. Finally, the needle’s eye would have been created with rudimentary stone ‘drill’.

The development of the needle around 35,000 years ago by Homo sapiens, without a doubt would have allowed for the development of more complex clothing. Animal skins, garments, fabrics or other coverings worn by early man and sewn with a bone needle would have allowed for ‘clothes’ to be layered and made to fit. It has been hypothesised that the humble sewing needle may have been what allowed the Homo sapien to prosper or flourish as a species over the Neanderthals?

There are numerous archaeology sites where varying sizes and types of needles have been found, in particularly, Turkey, Iraq, Greece and Britain. Famously, it is the Roman who have left us with elaborate traces of their sewing ingenuity. Roman needles came in any forms where both bone and metal needles were used.

It is believed that bone needles were preferred over metal as a sewing tool because metal tended to rust and stain the fabric it was used on. Most early sewing needles were generally used for heavy work and were never intended for fine sewing. Steel needles were first made in China and spread to the Middle East, where Damascus and Antioch became centres for fine needle work during Roman times. By the middle ages needles were treasured items and were kept in safe places. Coincidently, as a result sewing needles are hard to come by in archaeological digs. They were also more expensive and valuable than a pin because people had fewer of them.

Aiguille_os_246.1_Global.jpgA set of bone needles from Gourdon-Polignan in southwestern France. Courtesy of the Museum of Toulouse, France. Believed to be over 12,000 years old.

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