Pins and Needles – 1. Paeleolithic

The aim of this post is to explore current knowledge about the evolution of pins and needles in the early or old”stone age”, a time with no written records, and scant archaeology, due to the mobile nature of its peoples. Therefore a variety of sources have been used to gather information  for this post, including archaeological findings, theses, journal articles and books, coupled with the work of experimental archaeologists and re-enactors. Whilst it is impossible to give a definitive answer to how these tools came about, or the idea of  taking plant fibres and animal sinews to make twine and thread, we can develop a rough timeline of their development, using the available records.

The Ancient History Encyclopaedia defines the “Stone Age”, a 19th C construct, as starting approximately 2.5 million years ago, when stone tools began to appear in the archaeological record and ending in approximately 3300BCE, with the appearance of metal tools. The paelolithic period runs from 2.5 million years BCE to 9,600 BCE. It is notable for increasingly complex stone tools, which show more evidence of the stone being worked and fashioned to purpose as time passes. The discovery of ceramic spindle whorls, stone loom weights and impressions of extant textiles in paeleolithic sites, suggest that  sewing, spinning, weaving, netting  and some form of knitting or twining threads into fabric, developed during this period (Soffer et al 2000).

Studies suggest that, in Europe, pins and needles appeared in the Auriganacian culture

Needles, bone, from Cave of Coubet, Penn-Tarn, France. Late Paelolithic via British Musem

around 28,000 years ago, following on from the use of stone, bone or antler awls, to make holes in skins that were laced together with raffia, sinew or twine (Biessel Needles 2015). These first needles did not have an eye, but a slit in the top where the thread was held. If you have ever used modern self threading needles, which work on a similar concept, you’ll have sympathy with the stitchers in the tribes, as the thread was likely to keep escaping the slot. And although purely speculative, this is probably why the eye was developed, around 17500 BC, by the Gravettian people, as it provided better security for the thread. These “new” needles resembled their modern descendants with an eye at one end and a tapered end (Apparel were fashioned, from bone or antler in the main, although ivory examples also exist; long thorns or substantial fishbones  are thought to have served as pins. This video demonstrates the process of making bone needles, I would suggest not trying this at home unless you have experience in using the tools. It is of note that these bone needles remained in use until the 17th C , when the manufacturing costs and purchase price of the metal needle became significantly reduced, due to the industrial revolution ( Katz 2012a).

Venus of Willendorf 

Extensive evidence has been found in cave systems in Europe for the joining of  panels of textiles made from plant fibres, using a whip or over stitch seam (S0ffer 2004). This co-incides with the emergence of finer bone and ivory needles, that are too fine for working hides or leather. This suggests that the people had the ability to obtain the  bast fibres from plants, spin them, ply them and use them to weave textiles on early, non heddle looms, with some skill. Bast, is a plant fibre, obtained from the flax, hemp, ramie and jute plants. Sinkari (2000) states that linseed and flax were both cultivated by early man, at this time. The fibres were also plied more thickly to used to create baskets, twine and cordage, as evidenced from impressions on Gravettian ceramic female statuettes, the “dressed venus figurines” (Soffer et all 2000). Katzman 2012 and Stocker 2009 describe the discovery of ivory tools for tamping down a row of weave . Soffer et al (2000), also suggest that simple decorative embroidery, began to appear with these finer tools.They  argue that the skill level of textile production and useage, suggests that this is not an emergent craft but that it is building on expertise passed down through generations.It is thought that some textile imprints on clay point towards the production of clothing such as skirts, shirts and shawls, as well as more complex items such as bags.



References and Bibliography

Beissel Needles (2015) Needles in 28000 [online] BC  accessed: 5.7.2016

Katzman (2012) Aggsbach’s Paleolithic Blog – Weaving, [online] accessed 5/7/2016

Katzman (2012a) Aggsbach’s Paelolithic Blog – The Eyed Bone Needle

Marine Archaeology Trust (DATE) Bouldner Cliff [online] Accessed 5/7/2016

Sankari H (2000) Towards Bast Fibre Production In Finland: Stem And Fibre Yields And Mechanical Fibre Properties Of Selected Fibre Hemp And Linse Genotype,  Academic Thesis.  Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry of the University of Helsinki. [online] accessed 24/07/2016

Soffer, O (2004)  Recovering Perishable Technologies through Use Wear on Tools: Preliminary Evidence for Upper Paleolithic Weaving and Net Making, Current Anthropology 2004 45:3, 407-413

Soffer O,  Adovasio J.M., and Hyland D.C. The “Venus” Figurines Textiles, Basketry, Gender, and Status in the Upper Paleolithic, Current Anthropology Volume 41, Number 4, August–October 2000 [online], accessed 24/7/2016

Stocker, T. (2009) The Paleolithic Paradigm. Author House. Bloomington

Pins and Needles – 1. Paeleolithic

Pins and Needles, An Introduction

A Very Essential Tool – Pins and Needles in History

,When we think about woollen textiles we often overlook a trade that was vital to the production of wool, cloth and clothing, that of the pin and needle makers. With thanks to Joanne at Forge Mill Needle Museum and David Gladwin for their assistance with this topic, I am developing a short series of posts on the history of pins and needles and their manufacture, from the  simple pins of the Bronze and Iron age to the mass produced items of the industrial revolution. A combination of  archaeological finds, scholarly articles, results from experimental archaeology and the observations and experiences of those who are historical re-enactors to inform this series.

Incomplete decorated pin or needle of possible Roman date.

Uses of Needles: making nets, weaving, sewing, decorative embroidery, naalbinding

Uses of Pins:  fastening cloaks or other clothing, holding clothing together for sewing or use, attaching wimple to filet.

Uses of toothed metal implements: combs, carding combs, wool combs, the earliest finds are iron age

The image to the left can be located at

(2003) “NMGW-402A33: A ROMAN PIN” Web page available at: [Accessed: Jun 28, 2016 5:27:16 PM]

Despite the assertions of an author of an article in Godey’s Lady’s Book (1864), that the pin arrived sometime in the early 15th C, (prior to this they claim that women used wooden skewers, hoops and ribbons to secure their clothing); archaeology provides copious evidence to the contrary. Grave goods from prehistory demonstrate that people used a variety of natural products to fashion into pins and needles, from thorns to bones or antlers. These might have been used to sew skins together to make clothing, secure a woven cloak or fashion nets (Adkins 1982). As time progressed and man began to spin wool and create textiles, needles and pins became finer and often made for a specific purpose. Pins became more decorative and designed to be seen when holding items of clothing together. Evidence suggests that metal pins of bronze or iron were cast, the head being part of the body of the pin and not a separate entity to be joined later (Adkins 1982, Eoghan 1974

Stone age toolkit, including a bone needle, from Tyne and Wear Museums and Archives

It is known that during the medieval and early modern periods, metal pins and needles

Medieval copper alloy pin


were costly; but Groves’ (1973) suggestion that one needle was shared between a village is likely to be an exaggeration, overlooking the use of natural materials to fashion needles and pins. It does however illustrate the value of pins and needles and the need to look after them carefully. Pins were essential for holding clothing together and could be decorative or plain, depending on their visibility. Needles were used for everything to making clothes to the fine embroidery, Opus Anglicanum. There were political and legal steps taken to protect the English pinners from the cheaper, continental imports, at various times during this period, but they were largely ineffective (Caple 1992). This will be explored in more depth in a later post.

Reproduction 18th C pins

However the price of pins dropped dramatically during  The industrial revolution, with the development of mechanisation and the ‘production line’ approach to manufacturing pins and needles, due to the work of Adam Smith .Smith (1776), wrote the groundbreaking  “The Wealth of Nations”  including an indepth study of the pin and needle industry, which lead to improvements in working conditions, availability and cost. As fashion fabrics became finer. pins followed suit, becoming shorter and thinner (Caple 2006). Although more costly, decorative pins came in and out of vogue for fastening shawls and ensuring your elaborate hat did not fly off your head in a breeze!


Today there remain a handful of needle and pin manufacturers in the UK. Forgemill Museum of Needles in the Midlands, keep the history of the industry alive and  continue to make small runs of specialist needles using water powered technology. The reenactment community make bone wooden and metal needles and pins using traditional, often handcrafting methods that would otherwise be lost to time. The following posts will explore the tools, technology and uses of needles and pins in relation to wool, throughout time.



References for Overview

Adkins L, Adkins R (1982) Handbook of British Archaeology, Constable & Co, London

Anon (1864) “Pins” Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, Vol LXIX p361

Caple C (2006) Objects: Reluctant Witnesses to the Past Routledge London [online] accessed 10/5/16

Caple, Chris (1992). The Detection and Definition of an Industry; The English Medieval and Post Medieval Pin IndustryArchaeological Journal 148(1): 241-255.

Eogan G (1974) Pins of the Irish Late Bronze Age The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland Vol. 104 (1974), pp. 74-119

Groves S (1973) The History of Needlework Tools and Accessories. David & Charles, Newton Abbot

Smith, A (1776) An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations – Book 1, Chapter 1, Of the Division of Labour Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1970.

Pins and Needles, An Introduction