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