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Guide to Beading Needles

History of British Needle Manufacture

Needles have been produced throughout human history, from the carved bone awls used by stone age man to pierce animal skins, via the first metal needles of the Bronze and Iron Ages, to the instruments used in the world of medicine, and even to the use of surgical needles to sew heat resistant thermal barrier tiles onto the Space Shuttle! Yet despite this breadth of time and the diversity of uses the modern history of needle making is quite a narrowly defined one, being largely centred around the town of Redditch in Worcestershire, England. This small area of the Midlands was very much the global centre of the needle making industry from the early 17th century until cheaper manufacturing processes in Asia, based around far cheaper labour costs, has had a negative impact on this market sector in the last twenty years.

Until the the 16th century needle making in Britain had been carried out by the local blacksmith, or whitesmith (workers in tin), who would have supplied the needs of their immediate neighbours. Typically these needles would have been made from sheet iron cut into lengths which was then hammered and rolled to the thickness required. The points would then hand filed, with the eye created by flattening the head and then forcing a hole through it with a punch. This time consuming process resulted in a functional but poor quality needle. The process was slightly more advanced on the continent where the best quality needles were being made from high quality drawn steel wire in centres like Toledo and Nuremberg, in what are now Spain and Germany respectively. It would take political and religious unrest in Europe, forcing the migration of some of these foreign needle makers, to England to bring positive change to production methods in Britain. Largely speaking these emigres were Flemish Huguenots – Protestant workers and artisans – escaping Catholic persecution in France for Elizabethan tolerance in England. These foreign craftsmen settled along the Thames in central London as well as in the provinces including Chichester, Long Crendon and around Studley and Redditch in the Midlands. The new skills these craftsmen brought with them meant that needle making moved away from the blacksmiths realm into a dedicated cottage industry purely focused on needles. A guild of master needle makers was founded in London in 1656, called The Worshipful Company of Needle Makers with its charter granted by Oliver Cromwell.

In the areas around Redditch the earliest reference to needle making was recorded in 1639. This cluster of migrant needle makers stretched from Henley-in-Arden to Stoke Prior and from Alcester to Kings Norton. Redditch sat in the in the middle of this area but it wasn’t until 1700 that records show Redditch had become an active focus for needle production. At this time there were about 600 needle makers around Redditch, with power for the manufacturing process being supplied by a network of streams and rivers such as the River Arrow. This use of water power, primarily to polish the needles, gave the Redditch needle makers a technical advantage over their competition elsewhere in the country. The needles they made were less expensive to produce and of a higher quality. Over time other manufacturers find themselves unable to compete and eventually closed down, some even taking the radical step of moving their whole operation, including workers, to the Redditch area.

During the 17th and early 18th centuries needle making remained a cottage industry but one with a fair degree of organisation. Steel wire was drawn in Birmingham and then sent out to needle producers in the adjacent towns of Studley, Alcester, Henley-in Arden and Redditch. Some workers carried out all the stages of needle production, whilst others specialised in certain areas. One such specialisation was needle pointing which up until 1870 was done by hand. This was the best paid job available, but it was also the most dangerous. Apart from the physical dangers from slivers of metal flying up into workers eyes, or the potential for the grindstone to shatter, there was always an unseen danger from inhaling the dust from the needles and the grindstone. Through continued exposure pointers would often contract a crippling lung disease called Pointers Rot. The average life expectancy of a pointer during this period was no more than 35 years. These were occupations that were also open to women, at least outside London. Another factor in the migration of crafts people to the regions was that needle manufacture in London was being stifled through by-laws which prevented, for example, women from working in needle making within the boundaries of Greater London.

By the mid 18th century new machines were introduced to increase productivity to meet national demand but also to supply a growing world wide market centred on the British colonies. By 1850, the work of cutting and pointing the needle wire moved inside factories and Redditch was killing off their competition by being the only British centre making needles on an industrial scale. Migration to the area continued until about 1862, and alongside this growth needle scouring mills and factories were built up across the region. By 1866 there were nearly 100 million needles produced each year in Britain, and by the end of the century Redditch, and the surrounding district had a virtual monopoly on production. Continued investment, streamlining of process and increased automation of factory systems would see 45 million needles produced per week by the eve of the Second World War.

In 1730 Henry Millward & Sons was founded in Redditch by Symon Millward. Symon’s son Henry took over the business in 1770 and by the end of the 18th century the company was the largest manufacturer in the whole district. By the end of the next century Henry Millward & Sons had the largest factory in England for the production of needles. The company went on to play an active part in amalgamating the various needle making operations in the Redditch area. It absorbed several local companies and became The English Needle & Fishing Tackle Company in 1932. This company became Needle Industries Ltd in May 1946 and in 1961, following further mergers, it became Needle Industries Group Ltd. In 1973 the Scottish textile company Coats Paton took over the organisation. In 1984 Coats Paton acquired another needle making company, Aero Needles Group Ltd., forming the largest needle company in the world, which at its peak employed 15,000 people.

John James is the trading name of Entaco Limited, a privately owned British company based in Reddich, long known as the Needle Capital of the World. In 1930 two of the great needlemaker giants Milward and Hall joined forces under a single holding company, namely Amalgamated Needles and Fish Hooks Limited. In 1932 they formed a separate manufacturing division called the English Needle and Fishing Tackle Company or Entaco. Studley-based Entaco is one of the last remaining bastions of this important heritage, and has been making needles for over 300 years, the only remaining UK manufacturer of sewing needles. Now a much smaller business with a 100-strong workforce, it has seen generations of the same family pass over its threshold to earn their living.

John James itself was formed in 1840 and the original John James factory appeared listed as a business for the first time in an 1860 directory for the Redditch area. The factory presence was even acknowledged by the great English novelist Charles Dickens (1812 to 1870) when he mentioned a visit to Redditch in his Household Worlds journal.

“We have been to Redditch, that remarkable little . . . town, to see needles made . . . because our English needles of today are spreading all over the known world, wherever exchange of commodities is going on. We are allowed to go over the Victoria Works, the manufactory of Mr John James. That so many (needles) should go forth into the world from one house is wonderful enough . . . but the making ready for sale exhibits a miracle of dexterity”

John James himself originally focused on industrial needles and in particular sail making needles, before the company moved into producing their Finest Quality Needles in its distinctive yellow and black packaging for hand sewing and needlecraft use.

Due to foreign competition from Asia and the dramatic rise in factory made clothing, the town of Redditch is no longer the world leader it used to be. However, the tradition of needle making in the area continues with Britain’s only remaining manufacturer still producing over 400 million needles a year, having carved out a niche for consistently high quality needles in the face of cheaper imports.

How Needles Are Made

The sequence below details the modern method of producing needles. This list has been juxtaposed with images from A Guide through Washford Mills, Redditch, by Henry Milward and Sons, Limited, Birmingham, 1891 which follows a very similar, though more labour intensive, path to the modern process. The first illustration below is that of Washford Mill itself, and the subsequent images show needle workers within this Mill.

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1) A high quality steel is drawn down to the required length
2) The wire is straightened and cut to the length of two needles
3) Each end of this length of wire is pointed

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4) The eye impression is stamped in the centre of the wire using a die stamp

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5) A hole is punched through the die to form the to needle eyes

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6) The wires are broken into two separate needles which at this point have an eye and a sharpened end
7) Any waste metal around the eye is ground away

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8) The wire is hardened

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9) The wire is tempered to provide spring in the needle
10) The wire is scoured to clean it and to give polish

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11) The needles are nickel plated

12) The needles are quality controlled

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13) The needles are packaged for global distribution

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How to Use Beading Needles

In order to string beads or pearls, a double strand of beading thread needs to be passed through the holes of the beads. Pulling the thread through the holes is quicker and easier than trying to push it through (especially when using seed beads) and so beading needles are used.

There are five basic types of needles available:

1) Sewing Needles – if slim enough will pass through the hole of some beads but if you are working with seeds beads, or you any force is required to thread the bead then it is essential to use one of the following beading needles.

2) Twisted Wire Needles or Collapsible Eye Needles – These are flexible needles made of a loop of fine grade steel wire twisted around itself to form a needle shape. The needle has a non-twisted loop or eye at the end through which the beading thread is passed. The loop can then be squeezed flat using a pair of chain nosed beading pliers to grip the beading thread and to make it small enough to fit through the bead holes. When complete the eye can then be opened again using the pliers and the thread released. The large eye is easy to thread and can be used with many different sizes of cord. The long needle makes it easy to string lots of beads at once

3) Hard English Beading Needles – These are conventional needles which resemble household sewing needles but they are very slim and have an eye hole that is the same width as the shank of the needle. This often means the eye is too narrow to take a conventional beading thread and so a second loop of very fine leader thread is used. To do this:

  • Pull four or five inches of A sized silk thread or 00 sized beading silk through the hole in the beading needle by hand or using a sewing needle wire threader. Using a coloured therad will help you differentiate between the leader loop and the beading thread itself.
  • With the leader thread successfully pulled through the needle hole form a loop and tie the ends of the leader silk together using an overhand knot. Position this knot so that it lies in the middle of the loop and not at one end.
  • Having ensured you have enough beading thread to complete the job draw the beading thread through the leader loop and use an overhand knot to tie it off a second loop. From left to right you will have a needle, a loop of silk thread passing through the eye of the needle and a second loop of beading thread passing through the silk loop, with a long run of beading thread behind it.
  • Use your beading needle to pass both loops through the beads and pull the beading thread through to the other side.

4) Curved Beading Needles are lean curved needles with narrow eyes the same thickness as the needle shaft. Curved needles are produced by many makers and come in a variety of sizes and lengths. They are suitable for all kinds of thread work.

5) Big Eye Needles are made from high tensile wire and have an eye that runs the full length of the needle shaft. They are useful when regular thread changes are required and they are quite flexible when beading. They are also perfect for larger cords like Beadalon Elasticity stretch cord.

Keep reading to learn about the John James Hard English needles and the Beadalon Collapsible Eye needles stocked by Big Bead Little Bead:http

Understanding Beading Needle Sizes

Beading needles are very fine, with a narrow eye to enable it to fit through the centre of beads and sequins. They are usually long so that a number of beads can be threaded through at the same time. The sizes most commonly available are 10 to 15 but there is also an elusive and much sought after size 16 needle! The higher the number the thinner the needle.

Size 10, 12, and 13 fit the size 11/0 seed beads. Size 15 will fit the smaller 15/0 seed beads as well as some of the smaller vintage seed beads in sizes 18/0 through to 22/0. The elusive size 16 will fit most beads from 22/0 through to 24/0.

The other variables with beading needles are length, shape and flexibility.

We stock two different types of needles – John James hard English beading needles that resemble household sewing needles but with an eye hole that is the same width as the shank of the needle, and Beadalon collapsible eye needles made from twisted wire that have large easy-to-thread eyes which collapse and then reshape when they pass through a bead.

John James Hard English Needles

The John James needles we stock are in size 15, and a mixed pack of size 10 and size 13. Size 10 is a ‘general purpose’ needle as it is the largest in diameter. It can be used with most beads that can be strung onto a supple thread and with seed beads as small as a 13/0 seed bead. A size 13 needle is slimmer than the size 10 and this can be used with size 13/0 to size 15/0 seed beads where the thread has to pass several times through each bead. Size 15 is slimmer still and also fits through seed beads from size 13/0 to 15/0, but it can be used for bead weaving designs that have a complicated thread path. These long thin needles will naturally arc over time, but this can make them useful for threading into difficult to reach spots!

Beadalon Collapsible Eye Needles

The Beadalon collapsible eye needles that we stock come in a pack of three assorted sizes from fine – 0.30mm, medium – 0.36mm and heavy – 0.51mm). The twisted wire construction makes these needles stronger and ‘kink-resistant’. Size 15 seed beads have a 0.5mm hole, so between them this pack of needles will fit most seed beads.


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Anna Weller of Big Bead Little Bead

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