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Needle Making

 Forge Mill Needle Museum, 

Redditch.

  Steel produced in the Black Country was used for needle making 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 shuttle Columbia.

  Forge Mill Needle Museum

Needle Mill Lane,Riverside, Redditch, Worcestershire. B98 8HY.

Tel: 01527 62509  

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