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Mill Needle Museum,
produced in the Black Country was used for
at Redditch, just south of Birmingham, was world famous for its needle industry.
Up until the 16th century, needle making had been carried out by
local craftsmen like the blacksmith, to meet with the local demand. Needles
would be made from sheet iron cut into lengths which was hammered and rolled
into the thickness required. The points were filed by hand and the eye created
by first flattening the head and then punching a hole through it. The result of
this slow process was a poor quality needle.
At this time the best quality needles were being made abroad from high quality
steel. However, political unrest in Europe meant that some of the foreign needle
makers emigrated to England. The new skills they brought into the country meant
that the industry began to grow. In the Redditch area the first needle made was
recorded in 1639 and the craft soon spread to neighboring villages and reached
Redditch itself in 1700.
In the 17th and 18th century needle making had developed
into a cottage industry. Some workers carried out all the stages of needle
production, whilst others specialised in certain areas. By 18th
century new machines were introduced to increase productivity to meet the demand
from a growing population and a world wide market. By 1850 these machines were
incorporated under one roof – the factory system.
By 1866 there were nearly 100 million needles produced in Britain, and by the
end of the century the Redditch district had a virtual monopoly on production.
Also, because of the access
to the British colonies, it had also become the world’s centre for needle
manufacture. In fact, the story goes that when the Japanese started making
needles they named a suburb of Tokyo “Redditch”, just so they could
legitimately print “Made in Redditch” on their needle packets.
It seems that the use of water power to polish the needles since the early
1700’s, had given the Redditch area a technical advantage over the
competition. The needles they produced were inexpensive and of a higher quality
than were produced anywhere else. The other manufacturers were unable to compete
and eventually closed down, some even moved their whole firms, and workers, to
the Redditch area to start again.
Redditch was renowned world wide for its high quality needle production, and
one story says that a foreign manufacturer once sent a hypodermic needle to
Redditch claiming it was smaller than any they could produce. It was sent back
to the manufacturer with a Redditch needle threaded inside it !
Forge Mill Needle Museum tells the story of Redditch’s needle history. The
mill itself started life as an iron forge, but by 1730 had been converted to
needle scouring. In 1828 a major rebuild was undertaken and a Barrelling Shop
and Stone Crushing Mill were added. In 1870 a steam engine was installed to aid
the water wheel in times of drought.
The Needle Museum shows all the processes of manufacture, which began with the
steel wire from the Black Country being cut and strengthened. Needles were, and
still are, produced two at a time with both ends of the wire being pointed
before being split into two needles.
Up until the introduction of the automatic pointing machine, in around 1870,
needle pointing was done by hand. This was the best paid job in the factory, but
it was also the most dangerous. Slivers of metal could fly up and blind the
pointer, or the grindstone itself could shatter and cause fatal injuries. Not
only that, but the pointer was always inhaling dust from the needles and the
grindstone, and would often contract a crippling lung disease called “Pointers
Rot”. It is not surprising that the life expectancy of a pointer was no more
than 35 years.
After the double pointed needle left the pointer, it would have two eyes
punched in it, before being split in half. The needles were then hardened in a
furnace before being polished in the scouring mill. The mill is still powered by
a waterwheel which is fed from a stream once known as “Red Ditch”, for which
the town got it’s name. It was called Red Ditch because it flowed through, and
was stained by a thick red clay. After scoring the needles were glazed and dried
in sawdust in the Barrelling Shop.
The tradition of needle making in the area continues, with Britain’s only
manufacturer producing over 400 million needles a year in Studley. The museum
has a large collection of needles which is brought up to date with a Redditch
surgical needle, used to stitch some of the thermal barrier tiles on the space
Mill Needle Museum
Mill Lane,Riverside, Redditch, Worcestershire. B98 8HY.
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