Sewing Machine Research
ISMACS International
International Sewing Machine Collectors' Society

The art of Needle Making

by Graham Forsdyke
ISMACS News
Issue No. 29

RECENTLY ISMACS News has featured an article on the history of the needle, but perhaps one of the biggest mysteries to the layman is in how needles were actually manufactured.

The following account, written by George H Bleloch, is taken from The Sewing Machine Advance of 1886.

THE CITY of Springfield, Mass, has many industries that have added to her well-deserved fame, but none of their unique products are more generally distributed the world over than the needles that are made by her skilful artisans.

It is presumed that needle-making is the very oldest of the arts, and it possibly owes its inception to the exigencies of the occasion when our fair but frail mother Eve first realized that an apron was the proper thing to wear in the Garden of Eden. The manufacture of the garment required a needle, and, as "necessity" is the reputed mother of "invention", Adam probably exercised his ingenuity in fashioning an implement; but whether from bone of fish or fowl, or from back thorn spine, we shall never know, as history and tradition are silent on the subject. Princess Thermutis, Pharaoh's daughter, who discovered Moses, must have had a complete assortment of the best bronze needles of her time, with which she stitched the gauzy garments of the dimpled babe and future prophet; for bronze needles of various sizes have been found in Egyptian tombs which must have been made long before Moses was hidden in the bulrushes by his mother and crafty sister Miriam.

At the beginning of the Christian era, according to the historian Pliny, needles made of brass and bronze were plied by Roman matrons and maidens in hemming the togas of their conquering sons and brothers. Needles of steel were first made in Spain, perhaps by the cunning artificers who forged the famed Toledo blades. These Spanish needle-makers supplied Europe and Western Asia, and introduced their wares into England during the reign of "good Queen Bess"; but the wily Spaniards kept the art a secret until 1650. About this time Christopher Greening of Buckinghamshire, England, discovered the process, and established the manufacture of needles in his native land, where it has been an important industry for more than 200 years; and all the stitching of the world might, even at the present day, have been done with English hand-sewing needles, had not that Yankee genius Elias Howe evolved from his teeming brain the mechanical combination known as the .

From the time of Adam to Howe needles have been made with the point at one end and the eye at the other; but this erratic son of Massachusetts in a moment of inspiration put the eye in the point, and from that instant the problem of mechanical sewing was solved. "A needle with the eye at the point, in combination with a shuttle, both actuated by suitable mechanism", was the Howe invention; and all subsequent improvements in are based on these fundamental claims.

The new invention created new wants, the most urgent of these being the demand for needles made after the Howe patent; and among the very first to satisfy this want was a skilful awl-maker of North Bridgewater, now Brockton, Mass, Charles Howard, sen, by name, famed throughout Plymouth County and all the shoe districts of Eastern Massachusetts for the excellence of his implements of tempered steel. Making machine needles exclusively by hand work was a slow and difficult process, requiring a patient nature and a skilful hand, two requisites possessed by Mr. Howard in an eminent degree, and by virtue of which, together with his ingenuity in making labor-saving devices, he attained reputation and a competency. This pioneer American needle-maker lived to the age of 79 years, and died in 1882, respected and honored by all who knew him.

In 1873, when needle-making was first attempted in Springfield, little of the art was known outside of the four or five shops scattered through New England; for Yankee needle-makers, like their Spanish predecessors, tried to keep the art a secret. But the promoters of the Springfield enterprise were not to be deterred by ordinary obstacles they had invested money in a patent on a self-threading machine needle, and soon discovered, not only that the invention was not practical, but that the alleged inventor had possessed himself of all the money invested. They had, however, gained an experience, which in this case was valuable, inasmuch as it proved to be the germ of a great industry.

These promoters were a Boston lawyer, a New York printer and publisher, and the third a man of mechanical and business training who volunteered to manage the new enterprise. The manager was instructed by his associates to select a favorable point in New England, and commence the manufacture of machine needles, to compete with those of English make -- an audacious undertaking considering the fact that at that time British manufacturers controlled at least two thirds of the American market for machine needles, and supplied the rest of the world besides.

A point centrally located, with ample railroad facilities, a healthful climate, and abundant water-supply, where mechanics of the highest skill and intelligence could be found, described the ideal place to start an experimental needle factory. But one place in New England possessed these advantages, and that place was Springfield. It was quickly chosen; and one of its citizens, Mr. John Berry, who possessed great skill as a mechanic, and a remarkable genius for invention, and who had already earned a world-wide reputation as an inventor and manufacturer of improved skates, was secured to superintend and assist in developing the mechanical department of the new enterprise. Six employees, and a few thousand dollars' worth of machinery placed in the second story of the Burbank building, corner Willow and Stockbridge Streets, and a charter from the State incorporating the Company, were the modest beginning of the experiment.

A determination to surpass, in quality of goods, other needle-makers, American and foreign, was the guiding principle; and other considerations were made subordinate to that end. The small plant grew space, and today 175 busy workers are employed in commodious quarters, which, including land and buildings, have cost over $60,000, while $75,000 more are invested in machinery and supplies. It is not the purpose of this sketch to follow in detail the progress of the experiment during its rapid development into a promise of success, and its final growth into the largest manufactory of machine needles in the world; it is sufficient in this connection to state the fact, and proceed without further preface to describe the series of operations performed in trained hands, supplemented by automatic machinery, that transform steel wire into incomparable machine needles. Until quite recently most of the wire used in needle-making was imported from England, but at the present time wire of the finest quality is made by Massachusetts and Pennsylvania manufacturers.

The wire is drawn of suitable size for the shanks or but end of machine needles, and is received at the needle factory in coils weighing about 50 pounds each. The coil is placed on a reel, and fed through one of the straightening and cutting machines, four of which are in constant use. These machines are automatic, and deliver the wire, cut into uniform lengths, each piece containing sufficient stock for the needle which is to be made from it. The ends of the small pieces of wire being rough, they are next placed in the hopper of the butting machine, and are carried between two highly-speeded emery wheels, and come through with the ends ground to a conical shape, thus finishing one end, which is to be the shank, the part of the n that is held in the needle-bar of the sewing-machine, and preparing the other end to enter the dies of the compressing or swaging machines which perform the next important operation.

The compressing machine is a triumph of inventive genius and mechanical skill, and is purely automatic. It reduces the wire, by means of rapidly vibrating dies, to the size for the blade of the needle; the same operation elongating it to the length required for a needle-blank. Twenty-five of these compressing-machines are in use, each one having a capacity for swaging 3,000 n-blanks a day.

Twenty-five pairs of dies, each pair coming in contact 4,000 times a minute, create a din that reconciles one to investigate in less-noisy quarters. We will, therefore, follow the blanks from the compressing-room to the pointing department, for soft-pointing, so-called to distinguish it from the finish-pointing that is done after the needles are tempered.

The self-pointing is performed automatically by means of an ingenious machine that takes the blanks from a magazine, clips them to a uniform length, and carries them across the face of an emery wheel, shaping the points, but not making them sharp, as sharp points would be injured in passing through succeeding operations. Grooving follows soft-pointing, and is an operation requiring precise yet strong machinery, susceptible of the finest adjustment. The n when grooved is held in a clamp between two parallel spindles, on the end of which are fine steel saws or cutters. The clamp is fastened to a sliding bed, and grips the n as it carries it between and in contact with the cutters. One groove is short; the opposite one is cut the full length of the n-blade, and is intended to hold and protect the thread while the n passes through the fabric in sewing. The grooving-machines are partly automatic, one person being able to attend three machines.

The eye-punching is next in order -- a delicate operation, bringing into play mechanical skill, and requiring nimble fingers. It is performed by young men of from 16 to 24 years of age, the most expert being able to punch 16,000 eyes a day. The needles are now ready to be stamped, which is done by an automatic machine which rolls the n over the face of steel type with sufficient pressure to impress the name and size on the shank.

Most modern sewing-machines use self-setting needles, and this feature is secured in different ways; some needles are notched at the end of the shank, others have the shanks slabbed or ground off on one side, while some have a groove cut through the shanks.

These devices prevent the needle entering the needle-bar of the sewing-machine in any but the correct position. Ingenious machines are used in each of these operations. Notching and grooving the shank precede tempering; slabbing is subsequently done with emery wheels. Sixty per cent of the total cost of making a needle is expended in material and labor before it is ready for hardening and tempering; and a mistake in either of these operations is not only vexations, but expensive.

The finest grade of steel is a sensitive and capricious metal, and requires the most delicate and patient treatment in bringing it to a tough and elastic temper. In the process of hardening, the needles are submitted to the blaze of a charcoal fire until they are heated to a cherry-red color, and they are then chilled in an oil bath. When taken from the oil, they are washed in hot water charged with sal-soda, to remove the oil, and are then ready for tempering, which is done by again heating, this time in an oven heated to about 500 degrees, where the needles do not come into direct contact with the fire. If all these operations have been successful, the needles are now as though and elastic as a Damascus blade; and the series of polishing operations which follow are intended to bring them to a high finish, especially the eyes and points.

The first of the polishing operations is called brass-brushing, and the needles are prepared for it by being fastened in clamps; the blades and grooves are exposed to the action of a brush made of fine brass wire, and revolving 6,000 times per minute. A paste of fine emery and oil is used with the brush, and a high polish and smooth surface is the result.

Without being released from the clamps the needles are taken to the threading-room, where girls 15 to 18 years of age thread each needle with half a yard of best Sea Island cotton, the size of the thread corresponding to the size of the needle.

They are now ready for the eye polishers, who stretch the threads on a frame, and draw them as tightly as the strings of a harp.

Oil and fine emery are freely applied; and the clamp, full of needles, is drawn rapidly back and forth on the threads, until by a keen sense of feeling the operator knows the eyes to be smoothly polished.

The needles are again polished, but this time on a brush made of horse-hair, after which they are sent to the inspecting-room, where every needle is closely examined, and all imperfect ones condemned and destroyed. This close special inspection is maintained to correct any oversight on the part of the inspectors stationed in each department of the factory to scrutinize the needles as they pass through the various operations.

The most expensive of all operations in needle-making, straightening, following the inspection. Hardening and tempering spring the needle more or less out of true; and, as straightness is an indispensable quality for a perfect needle, the greatest care and watchfulness are exercised in this department.

A steady hand, a correct eye, good judgment, and strong nerves, are the requisites of a successful needle-straightener, and not more than one person in 20 can learn the art; but, once learned, the man or woman who has mastered it is sure of steady employment and good pay.

Each needle is rolled on a block with the index finger on one hand of the operator, while the crooks and bends are hammered on with a light bronze mallet wielded by the other.

After the straightening operation the needles are again inspected, to make sure they are straight, and are then passed on to the finish-pointer. This operation is done entirely by hand, and requires great skill and care to make the points of uniform length and graceful taper. The workman rolls from 15 to 20 needles between the forefinger of the left hand and the thumb of his right, at the same time applying the point to a fine emery wheel or belt under rapid motion. The touch of the operator must be as light and delicate as a fairy's footstep, so easily is the temper drawn from the extreme points when they come in contact with the grinding surface.

The next operator handles the needles in the same manner as the finish-pointer, and presses the points lightly on the surface of a revolving buffing-belt made of the finest material, and having the qualities of a fine razor strop; this gives the points a brilliant finish, and sets them for use. The next process is the finishing one; the needles are placed in wide-jawed tongs holding 50 or more needles, and are polished on a fine and rapidly-revolving brush charged with crocus mixed in alcohol.

From the last brusher the needles are sent to the stock and shipping room, where they are put up in packages of various kinds and sizes, for transportation to all civilized and semi-civilized lands.

The successful prosecution of an enterprise of this peculiar character requires not only inventive skill, but suitable appliances at the command of a corps of expert tool-makers, with trained eyes and cunning hands, to work into form the new inventions in automatic machinery which contribute so much to the success of this company. The m-shop, or tool-room, is complete in its equipment and appointments. The trade-mark, which is the word "Standard" on a scroll across the face of an American shield, is printed on all labels and packages.

The motto, "Labor conquers every thing", has been strikingly verified in the results accomplished by the promoters of the Springfield enterprise.

They first overcame the usual obstacles that surround and threat a new undertaking, then conquered the prevailing prejudices in favor of English and against American needles, and also rose superior to the petty jealousy of rivals who at first could not comprehend their policy or understand their progress.

Some of these competitors gracefully accepted the situation, and fell into the rear rank, satisfied to follow, as Providence had not ordained them to leave the others, becoming discouraged, wisely "folded their tents like the Arabs, and silently stole away".

All the achievements of the National Needle Company are not included in the facts herein stated. While surpassing competitors, not only in the quantity but also in the quality of needles produced, it has advanced the art of needle-making in an almost marvelous degree; the quality of machine needles having been improved at least 200%, although the selling price has been reduced not less than 70%.

These are facts probably without parallel in the history of American manufacturing industries, showing what can be accomplished by a liberal expenditure of money when directed with courage, energy and wisdom.

The National Needle Company will doubtless maintain its advanced position, because its comprehensive system of special machinery is covered by patents which it owns exclusively; and the following enumeration of them shows how prolific its experts have been in invention. It owns nine patents on swaging or compressing machines, two patents on machines for grooving, one on machine for grinding ends of wire, three on machines for polishing eyes, four for improvements on machine needles, and two for wrappers and packages.

The policy of the company is progressive, and it does not intend to rest complacently on well deserved laurels already won, and allow competitors to overtake it in the race for public favor and patronage.

It recognizes the fact that its present lead in this important manufacturing industry can be maintained only by the exercise of unceasing labor and the liberal expenditure of money in the development of improved machinery to expedite production, and, if possible, raise the standard of quality in every department of needle-making.

In concluding this sketch, it can be said without exaggeration that "Standard" machine needles have become the acknowledged the accepted standard of precision and quality the world over.

Experts use them in preference to other brands when executing difficult masterpieces of artistic needle-work; American and foreign needle-makers use them for patterns to work from; and sewing-machine companies use them in trial tests whenever success depends upon the needle.