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

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