A brief history of the needle

Following on from our post earlier this year from Julie, who was looking to change career and become a conservator and was on a work experience placement with us.

In July as well as conservation students Fiona and Anna we had the pleasure of hosting work experience to Ruth, a student at a local high school. Ruth has very kindly written this post for us.

My name is Ruth and I have just finished my first year of a-levels. I am really interested in textiles and wanted to find a work experience placement in that area. I sent a letter off to the National Trust Textile Conservation Studio, just down the road from where I live, and was overjoyed to get a placement there for eight days.


Below is a small project that I did on needles and I was surprised there was so much I didn’t know!

A brief timeline of the history of needles;

  • 17500 B.C – first needles with eyes
  • 7000 B.C – Copper needles
  • 2500 B.C – Bronze needles
  • 1195 B.C – Secret of hardening iron reaches Europe
  • 500 B.C – drawing plate used for producing wire
  • 60 A.D – Phrygier discovers embroidery
  • 1200 A.D – The needle enters China
  • 1496 – Leonardo da Vinci constructs a machine to point needles
  • 1615 – Aachen makes needles from fine, pure steel
  • 1730 – Stephan Beissel founds a needle factory in Germany
  • 1755 – First ever patent for a needle with eye
  • 1790 – Thomas Saint applies for a patent for a machine to sew shoes
  • 1811 – Abel & Michael Morall constructs a device for the pressing of eyes
  • 1845 – Elias Howe & Singer invent the sewing machine

Some types of needles include;

  1. Embroidery needles – long eye which makes it easier to thread multiple embroidery threads as well as thicker yarns.
  1. Betweens or Quilting needles – have a small rounded eye. Used for making very fine stitches on heavy fabrics.
  1. Milliner needles – useful for basting (tacking) and pleating. They are also used in millinery work (designing and manufacturing of hats.) 
  1. Curved needles –  Some of their uses include sewing awkward seams and are especially good for box making. They are also useful in textile conservation.
  1. Beading needles – very fine and have a narrow eye which allows them to fit through the center of beads and sequins.
  1. Chenille needles – similar to tapestry needles and are useful for ribbon embroidery. They have a large long eye and very sharp point.
  1. Tapestry needles – a large eye which allows them to carry a heavier weight yarn. Have a blunt tip which is usually bent at a slight angle from the rest of the needle.


Stitches used in Textile Conservation;

Couching stitch

Self-couching stitch used to secure torn, frayed or weak areas to a new support fabric. Quite a common stitch used in textile conservation. Worked parallel to either the warp or the weft. 

Support stitch

Support stitch – used to hold large textiles to a new backing fabric while distributing the weight of the thread evenly. Usually the support stitch is applied in a staggered pattern parallel to the warp.

Herring bone stitch

Herring-bone stitch – quite a simple interlacing stitch, similar to cross-stitch. It can be used to join two layers of fabric while maintaining flexibility. Also used to hold down single-fold hems or the edges of patches.

Slip stitch

Slip stitch –almost invisible on the right side. It is used for blind hemming and to attach linings to textiles.

Whip stitchWhip stitch – used to join backing fabrics to main piece. When the fabric is opened up, a flat joint is created which avoids seam build up.

Images taken from Canadian Conservation Institute website.


During my time there I was given a variety of tasks to do, including stitch exercises, labelling pieces from the Le Char de Triomphe tapestry from Castle Drogo, cleaning a rare lampshade from The Argory and I even got to help out with some of the tapestries too! I have really enjoyed my time at the studio and have learnt so much from this experience!