It used to be the job of a blacksmith to make needles from flattened and rolled sheets of iron but it was very labour intensive work with often poor quality, soft needles being produced. By the end of the 16th century, high quality steel needles were being imported from Europe, followed by a migrant population of needle workers.
Throughout the early 17th century, many needle makers were carrying out the various processes from their own homes, and soon established something of a cottage industry in places such as Studley, Alcaster and Redditch.
From relatively small-scale operations throughout England the industry flourished, and in 1656 the needle makers became an incorporated company in the City of London. However, it was the Redditch needle making district that became a world centre for the manufacture of needles, and had a monopoly on British production by the end of the 19th century. Even today, Studley remains the sole manufacturers of domestic sewing needles in Britain, and produces some 400 million each year.
Formerly the site of an iron forge, the mill was converted in about 1730 to function as a needle scouring mill. Since that time, the site has been extended, notably in the first half of the 19th century, and several buildings showing the processes of needle manufacture now form the National Needle Museum.
The process begins with the delivery of coils of steel wire which are pre-heated and drawn through series of holes in a metal block, decreasing in diameter until the desired thickness is achieved. Needles have always been produced as doubles, and still are, so the wire is then cut to length (sufficient for two needles) - one coil produces some 60,000 needles. The next stages were straightening and pointing, followed by forming the eyes and 'spitting' - a process to remove any excess metal around the eye. They were then manually broken into two separate needles, filed down, hardened and tempered, and finally 'scoured' (or polished). Before being dried in revolving barrels containing hot sawdust, they were washed and glazed.
When most of the work was completed manually, you can only imagine how dangerous this might have been. Long hours, hand tools, furnaces, metal chips, and dust did not make for a long healthy life!
As Victorian factories were built, and technological advances in manufacture were introduced in the Redditch area to provide higher quality needles at a competitive price, other needle making businesses went into decline. In fact, business had ceased altogether in London before the end of the 18th century.
This really is a delightful place to discover, from the wonderful group of buildings to the fascinating insight into the working lives of the people who contributed to the needle making history. There are also some very interesting displays of needles, and their uses, as well as the oldest and newest needles, and the smallest and largest.