Bone Sewing Needles (a brief history of…)

The humble sewing needle needs no introduction. Everyone has likely seen one used or has used one to sew that damn hole in your favourite sock! Sewing needles and clothing go hand in hand. Without the use of a sewing needle, early man would be still wearing his crude jocks around his ankles!

Our modern sewing needle is the direct descendent of the flint or bone needle (awls) used by humans thousands of years ago. The first needles would have likely been made by using a flint tool. Splinters of bone would have been cut out and trimmed roughly into a pointed shape. The crude needle was probably then polished smooth with sand, water and a soft stone rubber. Finally, the needle’s eye would have been created with rudimentary stone ‘drill’.

The development of the needle around 35,000 years ago by Homo sapiens, without a doubt would have allowed for the development of more complex clothing. Animal skins, garments, fabrics or other coverings worn by early man and sewn with a bone needle would have allowed for ‘clothes’ to be layered and made to fit. It has been hypothesised that the humble sewing needle may have been what allowed the Homo sapien to prosper or flourish as a species over the Neanderthals?

There are numerous archaeology sites where varying sizes and types of needles have been found, in particularly, Turkey, Iraq, Greece and Britain. Famously, it is the Roman who have left us with elaborate traces of their sewing ingenuity. Roman needles came in any forms where both bone and metal needles were used.

It is believed that bone needles were preferred over metal as a sewing tool because metal tended to rust and stain the fabric it was used on. Most early sewing needles were generally used for heavy work and were never intended for fine sewing. Steel needles were first made in China and spread to the Middle East, where Damascus and Antioch became centres for fine needle work during Roman times. By the middle ages needles were treasured items and were kept in safe places. Coincidently, as a result sewing needles are hard to come by in archaeological digs. They were also more expensive and valuable than a pin because people had fewer of them.

Aiguille_os_246.1_Global.jpgA set of bone needles from Gourdon-Polignan in southwestern France. Courtesy of the Museum of Toulouse, France. Believed to be over 12,000 years old.
Photo Credit: All images are used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

Robert Horvat is a Melbourne based blogger. He believes that the world is round and that art is one of our most important treasures. He has seen far too many classic films and believes coffee runs through his veins. As a student of history, he favours ancient and medieval history. Music pretty much rules his life and inspires his moods. Favourite artists include The Beatles, Pearl Jam, Garbage and Lana Del Rey.

8 comments on “Bone Sewing Needles (a brief history of…)

  1. I don’t believe it; you are quite the character! Love it!

  2. Pingback: Crafting through history: The invention of the sewing needle

  3. Reblogged this on Paleotool's Weblog and commented:
    I still remember when one of my professors, in a lecture about culture-changing innovations, discussed the eyed needle as both a major technological innovation and a proxy for much more. Eyed needles imply sewing and it is not a major leap to conjecture some level of tailored clothing and bags. Leather was abundant in hunter-gatherer societies and can be made into many things. Humans moved into cold climates early on and well-made clothing is a real boon. Unfortunately, for the archaeologist, such small, degradable materials rarely survive outside caves and rock shelters. The best, oldest example I am aware of in the Americas is the Horn Rock Shelter in Bosque County, Texas. Have a look at the short history below and check out the Texas Beyond History page for more about Horn Shelter.

  4. I can understand how the needle allowed “homo sapiens to prosper or flourish as a species over the Neanderthals” but has anybody thought that, as well as clothes, they used it for sewing up wounds?

  5. Pingback: Neanderthals, Needles, and Fur Clothing | witness2fashion

  6. This is a fascinating history of needles and I love the fact that you actually show an old bone needle. I understand that bird bones were also used for finer needles but I have never seen one or do I know if this is true. I have been studying some Coptic embroidery which has very small and fine stitches. I wonder what kind of needle was used? I shall share your information with my needlework students. We all love the history of the tools and materials as well as the techniques and stitches used. As to sewing up wounds, I wonder if that’s how patients died in the early days with the needles that rusted so easily. Just wondering.

  7. merryoldp@gmail.com

    our history teacher told us, Animal whisker needles were used as flesh sutures the thread was wound onto the whisker, a pilot hole was made using a sharp bird bone and sewing commenced.

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