S. THOMAS & SONS
A VISIT TO THE BRITISH NEEDLE MILLS, REDDITCH
Why are needles made at Redditch? Why should a beautiful and secluded part of the county of Worcester, many miles distant from what are termed the “manufacturing districts,” contain a village, whose inhabitants, one and all, live directly or indirectly by making these little steel implements? The fact is demonstrable, but the reason is not. The good housewife who mends her child’s pinafore, the milliner who decks out a lady in her delicate attire, the hard-working sempstress who supplies “made-up goods” to the shops, the school girl who works her sampler; all, however little they may be aware of the fact, are dependent principally on a Worcestershire village for the supply of their needles. Their “Whitechapel needles” are no longer made at Whitechapel, even if they ever were and though they may in some cases seem to emanate from London manufacturers, the chances are that they were made at Redditch. Not that other towns are without indications of this branch of manufacture; but in them it is merely an isolated feature, while at Redditch, as we shall presently see, needle-making is the staple, the all-in-all, without which, almost every house in the place would probably be shut up; for although there is a fair sprinkling of the usual kind of workmen, shopkeepers, dealers, &c. these are only such as are necessary for supplying the wants of the needle-making population. It is a strange thing that the Redditch manufacturers themselves seem scarcely able to assign a reason why this branch of industry has centred there, or to name the period of its commencement. Indeed, the early history of the needle-trade is very indistinctly recorded. Stow tells us while speaking of the kind of shops found in Cheapside and other busy streets of London, that needles were not sold in Cheapside until the reign of Queen Mary and that they were at that time made by a Spanish negro, who refused to discover the secret of his art. Another authority states that “needles were first made in England by a native of India, in 1545, but the art was lost at his death; it was, however, recovered in 1650, by Christopher Greening, who settled with his three children at Long Crendon, in Buckinghamshire.” Whether the negro in one of these accounts is the same individual as the native of India mentioned in the other, cannot now be determined, nor is it more clear at what period Redditch became the centre of the manufacture. There are slight indications of Redditch needle-making for a period of two centuries, but beyond that all is blank. A reader, who associates the potteries with the clay districts of North Staffordshire and the smelting works with the coal and iron districts of South Staffordshire, will naturally seek to know whether any features distinguish Redditch which will enable us to assign a probable origin for the needle-manufacture there. A visitor, in any degree accustomed to watch the progress of manufactures, looks around him to seek for any indications whence he may account for the location of needle-making; he looks for a stream or canal, or something which may be to the manufacture in the relation of cause to effect but very little of the kind is seen. Needle-making is nearly all the result of manual dexterity, requiring little aid from water or steam power. There are, it is true, a few water wheels employed for pointing and scouring the needles, hut Redditch presents no other facilities for this purpose than such as are presented by a thousand other places in the kingdom. In short, there seems to be no other mode of accounting for the settlement of the needle-manufacture in this spot, than that which may be urged in reference to watchmaking in Clerkenwell, or coach-making in Long Acre. A needlemaker we will suppose, say two centuries ago, settled at Redditch and gradually accumulated round him a body of workmen. A supply of skilled labour having been thus secured, another person set up in the same line. In time, the workmen’s children learned the occupation carried on by their parents and thus furnished an increased supply of labour, which in its turn, led to the establishment of other manufacturing firms. By degrees so many needles were made at Redditch, that the village acquired a reputation throughout the length and breadth of the land for this branch of manufacture and hence it became a positive advantage for a maker to be able to say that his needles were “ Redditch needles.” This train of surmises may perhaps approach pretty nearly to the truth. Let us, however, leave conjecture and proceed to facts. There are in Redditch about half-a-dozen manufacturers who conduct the needle-manufacture on a large scale and employ a considerable number of persons. Some work in factories built by and conducted under the superintendence of the master manufacturers; while others work at their own homes. In no occupation, perhaps, is the division of labour more strictly carried out than in needle-making; for the man who cuts the wire does not point, nor does the pointer make the eyes or polish the needles. Both within and without the factory the same system of division is kept up; for a cottager who procures work from a needle-manufacturer does not undertake the making of a needle, but only one particular department, for which he is paid at certain recognised prices. Many of the workpeople live a few miles distant and come with their work at intervals of a few days, a plan which can be adopted without much inconvenience, since a considerable quantity of these little articles may be packed in a small space. It is, we believe, estimated that the number of operatives in Redditch is about three thousand and in the whole district of which Redditch is the centre, six or seven thousand, of whom a considerable number are females. The general name of “mills” is given to the needlefactories, each one having some distinctive name whereby it may be indicated.
Thus the establishment which we have been obligingly permitted to visit and the arrangements of which will be here described, is called the “British Needle Mills”. To the British Needle Mills of S.Thomas & Sons, then, our visit is directed. This factory has been recently constructed and is situated at one extremity of the village. It consists of a number of court-yards or quadrangles, each surrounded by buildings wherein the manufacture is carried on. The object of this arrangement seems to be to obtain as much light as possible in the workshops, since most of the departments of needle-making; require a good light. Some of the rooms in the factory are small, containing only three or four men; while others contain a great many workmen, according to the requirements of the several processes of the manufacture. From the upper rooms of the factory, the surrounding hilly districts of Worcestershire are seen over a wide extent, wholly uninterrupted by any indications of manufacture or town bustle and it is while glancing over this prospect that one wonders how on earth needlermaking came to speckle such a scene. The sub-divisions of the factory correspond with those in the routine of manufacture and we accordingly find that, while some of the shops are occupied by men, others contain only females and others again furnish employment chiefly for boys. We should surprise many a reader were we to enumerate all the processes incident to the manufacture of a needle, giving to each the technical name applied to it in the factory. The number would amount to somewhere about thirty, but it will be more in accordance with our object to dispense with such an enumeration and to present the details of manufacture in certain groups, without adhering to a strictly technical arrangement. First, then, for the material. It is scarcely necessary to say that needles are made of steel and that the steel is brought into the state of wire before it can assume the form of needles. The needle-makers are not wiredrawers; they do not prepare their own wire, but purchase it in sizes varying with the kind of needles which they are about to make. We will suppose, therefore, that the wire is brought to the needle factory and deposited in a store-room. This room is kept warmed by hot air to an equable temperature, in order that the steel may be preserved free from damp or other sources of injury. Around the walls are wooden bars or racks, on which are hung the hoops of wire. Each hoop contains what is called a packet, the length varying according to the diameter. Perhaps it may be convenient to take some particular size of needle and make it our standard of comparison during the details of the process. The usual sizes of sewing needles are from No. 1, of which twenty-two thicknesses make an inch, to No. 12, of which there are a hundred to an inch. Supposing that the manufacturer is about to make sewing needles of that size known as No. 6, then the coil of wire is about two feet in diameter; it weighs about 13 lbs.; the length of wire is about a mile and a quarter and it will produce forty or fifty thousand needles. The manufacturer has a gauge, consisting of a small piece of steel, perforated at the edge with eighteen or twenty small slits, all of different sizes, and each having a particular number attached to it. By this gauge the diameter of every coil of wire is tested and by the number every diameter of wire is known. A coil of wire when about to be operated upon, is carried to the “ cutting shop”, where it is cut into pieces equal to the length of two needles. Fixed up against the wall of the shop is a ponderous pair of shears, with the blades uppermost. The workman takes probably a hundred wires at once, grasps them between his hands, rests them against a gauge to determine the length to which they are to be cut, places them between the blades of the shears and cuts them by pressing his body or thigh against one of the handles of the shears. The coil is thus reduced to twenty or thirty thousand pieces, each about three inches long and as each piece had formed a portion of a curve two feet in diameter, it is easy to see that it must necessarily deviate somewhat from the straight line. This straightness must be rigorously given to the wire before the needle-making is commenced and the mode by which it is effected is one of the most remarkable in the whole manufacture. Around the walls of the shop we see a number of iron rings hung up, each from three or four to six or seven inches in diameter and a quarter or half an inch in thickness. Two of these rings are placed upright on their edges at a little distance apart and within them are placed many thousands of wires, which are kept in a group by resting on the interior edges of the two rings. In this state they are placed on a shelf in a small furnace and there kept till red hot. On being taken out at a glowing heat, they are placed on an iron plate, the wires being horizontal and the rings in which they are inserted being vertical. The process of “rubbing” (the technical name for the straightening to which we allude then) commences.
The workman, as here represented, takes a long piece of iron, and inserting it between the two rings, rubs the wires backwards and forwards, causing each to roll over on its own axis and also over and under those by which it is surrounded. The noise emitted by this process is just that of filing; but no filing takes place, for the rubber is smooth and the sound arises from the rolling of one wire against another. The rationale of the process is this: the action of one wire on another brings them all to a perfectly straight form, because any convexity or curvature in one wire would be pressed out by the close contact of the adjoining ones. The heating of the wires facilitates this process and the workman knows by the change of sound, when all the wires have been “ rubbed” straight. Our needles have now assumed the form of perfectly straight pieces of wire, say a little more than 3 in. in length, blunt at both ends and dulled at the surface by exposure to the fire. Each of these pieces is to make two needles, the two ends constituting the points and both points are made before the piece of wire is divided in two. The pointing immediately succeeds the rubbing and consists in grinding down each end of the wire till it is perfectly sharp. The workman sits on a stool or “horse” a few inches distant from the stone and bends over it during his work. He takes fifty or a hundred wires in his hand at once and holds them in a peculiar manner. He places the fingers and palm of one hand diagonally over those of the other and grasps the wires between them, all the wires being parallel. The thumb of the left hand comes over the back of the fingers of the right and the different knuckles and joints are so arranged, that every wire can be made to rotate on its own axis, by a slight movement of the hand, without any one wire being allowed to roll over the others. He grasps them so that the end of the wires (one end of each) projects a small distance beyond the edge of the hand and fingers and these ends he applies to the grindstone in the proper position for grinding them down to a point. It will easily be seen, that if the wires were held fixedly, the ends would merely be bevelled off, in the manner of a graver and would not give a symmetrical point; but by causing each wire to rotate while actually in contact with the grindstone, the pointer works equally on all sides of the wire and brings the point in the axis of the wire. At intervals of every few seconds, he adjusts the wires to a proper position against an iron plate and dips their ends in a little trough of water between him and the grindstone. Each wire sends out its own stream of sparks, which ascends diagonally in a direction opposite to that at which the workman is placed. So rapid are his movements, that he will point seventy or a hundred needles, forming one hand-grasp, in half a minute, thus getting through ten thousand in an hour. The reader will bear in mind, that the state of our embryo needle is simply that of a piece of dull straight wire, about 3 in. long (supposing 6’s to be the size) and pointed at both ends. The next process is one of a series by which two eyes or holes are pierced through the wire, near the centre of its length, to form the eyes of the two needles which are to be fashioned from the piece of wire. A number of very curious operations are connected with this process, involving mechanical and manipulative arrangements of great nicety. Those who are learned in the qualities of needles, as that they will not “cut in the eye ” and so forth, will be prepared to expect that much delicate workmanship is involved in the production of the eyes and they will not be in error in so supposing. Most of the improvements which have from time to time been introduced in needle-making, relate more or less to the production of the eye. In the commoner kinds of needles, many processes are omitted which are essential to the production of the finer qualities but it will show the whole nature of the operations better for us to take the case of those which involve all the various processes. After being examined, when the pointer has done his portion of the work to them (an examination which is undergone after every single process throughout the manufacture), the wires are taken to the “stamping shop”, where the first germ of an eye is given to each half of every wire. The stamping machine consists of a heavy block of stone, supporting on its upper surface a bed of iron and on this bed is placed the under half of a die or stamp. Above this is suspended a hammer, weighing about 30 lbs. which has on its lower surface the other half of the die or impress. The hammer is governed by a lever moved by the foot, so that it can be brought down exactly upon the iron bed. The form of the die or stamp may be best explained by stating the work which it is to perform. It is to produce the “gutter” or channel in which the eye of the needle is situated and which is to guide the thread in the process of threading a needle. But besides the two channels or gutters, the stampers make a perforation partly through the wires, as a means of marking exactly where the eye is to be. The device on the two halves of the die is consequently a raised one, since it is to produce depressions in the wire. The workman holding in his hand several wires, drops one at a time on the bed-iron of the machine, adjusts it to the die, brings down the upper die upon it by the action of the foot and allows it to fall into a little dish when done. This he does with such rapidity that one stamper can stamp 4.000 wires, equivalent to 8.000 needles, in an hour, although he has to adjust each needle separately to the die. To this process succeeds another, in which the eye of the needle is pierced through. This is effected by boys, each of whom works at a small hand-press and the operation is at once a minute and ingenious one. The boy takes up a number of needles or wires and spreads them out like a fan. He lays them flat on a small iron bed or slab, holding one end of each wire in his left hand and bringing the middle of the wire to the middle of the press. To the upper arm of the press are affixed two hardened steel points or cutters, being in size and shape exactly corresponding with the eyes which they are to form. Both of these points are to pass through each wire, very nearly together and at a small distance on either side of the exact centre of the wire. The wire being placed beneath the points, the press is moved by hand, the points descend and two little bits of steel are cut out of the wire, thereby forming the eyes for two needles. As each wire becomes thus pierced, the boy shifts the fan-like array of wires until another one comes under the piercers and so on throughout. The press has to be worked by the right hand for piercing each wire and the head of the boy is held down pretty closely to his work, in order that he may see to “eye” the needles properly. Were not the wires previously prepared by the stamper, it would be impossible thus to guide the piercers to the proper point, but this being effected, patience, good eye-sight and a steady hand effect the rest.
(a is the lower die on which the needles b are placed, to be pierced by the points c, guided by the apparatus d). There are several processes about this stage which are effected by boys; some of these little labourers take the needles when they have been “eyed” and proceed to “spit” them, that is, to pass a wire through the eye of every needle. Two pieces of fine wire, perhaps three or four inches in length, are prepared, the diameter corresponding exactly with the size of the needle eye. These two pieces of wire are held in the right hand, parallel and at a distance apart equal to the distance between the two eyes in each needle-wire. The pierced needles, being held in the left hand, are successively threaded upon the two pieces of smaller wire, till, by the time the whole is filled, the assemblage has something the appearance of a fine toothed comb. A workman then files down the bur or protuberances left on each side of the eye by the stamper.
It must be borne in mind that throughout all these operations the needles are double; that is, that the piece of wire three inches in length, which is to produce two needles an inch and a half long each, is still whole and undivided, the two eyes being nearly close together in the centre and the two points being at the ends. Now, however, the separation is to take place. The filer, after he has brought down the protuberances on each wire, but before he has laid the comb of wires out of his hand, bends and works the comb in a peculiar way until he has broken the comb into two halves, each half “ spitted by one of the fine wires. The needles have arrived at something like their destined shape and size, for they are of the proper length and have eyes and points. In the annexed cut we can trace the wire through the processes of change hitherto undergone.
(A the wire for two needles; B the same, pointed at one end; C pointed at both ends; D the stamped impress for the eyes; E the eyes pierced; F the needles just before separation; d, e, f, enlargements of D, E, F). But although we have now little bits of steel which might by courtesy be called needles, they have very many processes to undergo before they are deemed finished, especially if, in accordance with our previous supposition, they are of the finer quality. The needles are by this time pointed and eyed, but before they can be brought to that beautifully finished state with which we are all familiar, it is necessary that they should be “hardened ” and “ tempered ” by a peculiar application of heat. After being examined to see that the preceding processes are fitly performed, the needles are taken to a shop provided with ovens or furnaces. They are laid down on a bench and by means of two trowel-like instruments spread in regular thick layers on narrow plates or trays of iron. In this way they are placed on a shelf or grating in a heated furnace. When the proper degree of heating has been effected, the door is opened and the needles are shifted from the iron tray into a sort of colander or perforated vessel immersed in water or oil. When they are quite cooled the hardening is completed and if it has been effected in water the needles are simply dried but if in oil, they are well washed in an alkaline liquor to free them from the oil. Then ensues the tempering process. The needles are placed on an iron plate, heated from beneath and moved about with two little trowels until every needle has been gradually brought to a certain desired temperature. We now leave the furnace-room and proceed to one of the upper rooms of the factory, where a multitude of minor operations are conducted. The needles have become slightly distorted in shape by the action of the heat in the processes just described and to rectify this they undergo the operation of “hammer straightening”. A number of females are seen seated at a long bench, each with a tiny hammer, giving a number of light blows to the needles; the needles being placed on a small steel block with a very smooth upper surface. This is rather a tedious part of the manufacture, the workwomen not being able to straighten more than live hundred needles in an hour, a degree of quickness much less than that which we have had hitherto to notice. We leave the tinkling hammers and follow the needles to the only part of the manufacture which involves apparatus other than of a small size. This is the “scouring” process. In one of the lower rooms of the factory are machines looking like mangles, or, perhaps, more correctly like marble polishing machines, a square slab or rubber working to and fro on a long bench. The object of this process is to rub the needles one against another for a very long period, till the surfaces of all have become perfectly smooth, clean and true. This is effected in a curious manner. A strip of thick canvas is laid open in a small hollow tray and on this a heap of needles is laid, all the needles being parallel one with another and with the length of the cloth. The needles are then, with soft soap, emery and oil, tied up tightly in the canvas, the whole forming a compact roll about two feet long and three inches in thickness; these are placed under the runners of the scouring machines, two rolls to each machine. A steam engine gives to the runners, by connected mechanism, a reciprocating or backward and forward motion, pressing heavily on the rolls of needles and causing all the needles of each bundle to roll one over another. By this action an intense degree of friction is exerted among the needles, whereby each one is rubbed smooth by those which surround it. For eight hours uninterruptedly this rubbing or scouring is carried on, after which the needles are taken out, washed in suds, placed in new pieces of canvas, with a new portion of soap, emery and oil and subjected to another eight hours’ friction. Again and again is this repeated, insomuch that for the best needles the process is performed five or six times over, each time during eight hours’ continuance. This is one of the points in which the difference is shown between various qualities of needles, the length of the scouring being correspondent with the excellence of the production. Again we accompany the needles to another part of the factory, being that which is technically termed the “bright shop”, in which many processes are carried on in reference to the finishing of needles. The needles are examined after being scoured and are placed in a small tin tray, where, by shaking and vibrating in a curious manner, they are all brought into parallel arrangement. From thence they are removed into flat paper trays in long rows or heaps and passed on to the “header”, generally a little girl, whose office is to turn all the heads one way and all the points the other. This is one among the many simple but curious processes involved in this very curious manufacture, which surprise us by the rapidity and neatness of execution. The girl sits with her face towards the window and has the needles ranged in a row or layer before her, the needles being parallel with the window. She draws out laterally to the right those which have their eyes on the right hand, into one heap and to the left those which have their eyes in that direction, in another heap. About this time, too, the needles are examined one by one, to remove those which have been broken or injured in the long process of scouring; for it sometimes happens that as many as eight or ten thousand, out of fifty thousand, are spoiled during this operation. Most ladies are conversant with the merits of “drilled-eyed needles” warranted “not to cut the thread”. These are produced by a modern improvement, whereby the eye, produced by the stamping and piercing processes before described, is drilled with a very fine instrument, by which its margin becomes as perfectly smooth and brilliant as any other part of the needle. To effect this, the needle is first “blued” that is, the head is heated so as to give it the proper temper for working. Next comes the drilling. Seated at a long bench are a number of men and boys, with small drills working horizontally with great rapidity. The workman takes up a few needles between the finger and thumb of his left hand, spreads them out like a fan, with the eyes uppermost, brings them one at a time opposite the point of the drill and drills the eye, which is equivalent to making it even, smooth and polished. He moves the thumb and finger, so as to bring the opposite side of the needles, in succession, under the action of the drill and thus gets through his work with much rapidity. The preparation of the drills, which are small pieces of steel three or four inches long, is a matter of very great nicety and on it depends much of that beauty of production which constitutes the pride of a modern needle-manufacturer. We next pass into a large room (see illustration above), where a multitude of little wheels are revolving with great rapidity, some intended for what is termed “grinding” and setting the needles and some for polishing. The men are seated on low stools, each in front of a revolving wheel, which is at a height of perhaps two feet from the ground. All the wheels are connected by straps and bands with a steam-engine in the lower part of the factory. A constant humming noise is heard in the room, arising from the great rapidity of revolution among a number of wheels and it is not difficult for the ear to detect a difference of tone or pitch among the associated sounds, due to differences in the rate of movement. The workman takes up a layer or row of needles, between the fingers and thumbs of the two hands and applies the heads to the stones in such a manner as to grind down any small asperities on the surface. As the small grindstones are revolving three thousand times in a minute, it is plain that the steel may soon be sufficiently worn away by a slight contact with the periphery of the stone. The grinders and the polishers sit near together, so that the latter take up the series of operations as soon as the former have finished. The polishing wheels consist of wood coated with buff leather, whose surface is slightly touched with polishing paste. Against these wheels the polishers hold the needles, applying every part of the cylindrical surface in succession; first holding them by the pointed end and then by the eye end. About a thousand in an hour can thus be polished by each man and, when they leave his hands, the needles are finished. We have still to see the needles papered. In one of the rooms a number of females are cutting the papers, separating the needles into groups of twenty-five each and folding them into the neat oblong form so well known to all users of a “paper of needles”. So expert does practice render the workwomen, that each one can count and paper three thousand needles in an hour. The papered needles then pass to another room, where boys paste on the labels bearing the manufacturer’s name. Even here there are sundry little contrivances for expediting the process, which would scarcely be looked for by common observers. When the papers have been dried on an iron frame, in a warm room, they are packed into bundles of ten or twenty papers each; which are further packed in square parcels containing ten, twenty, or fifty thousand needles, inclosed, if for exportation, in soldered tin cases. As a means of judging the bulk of the needles, we may state that ten thousand 6’s form a packet about six inches long, three and a half wide and under two in thickness. Thus have we followed the manufacture to its close. None but the best needles undergo the whole of the processes enumerated but we have wished to give them as a means of estimating the complexity of the manufacture of an article apparently so humble. The arrangements of the “British Needle Mills”, as to apparatus, &c. are adapted to the production of two hundred millions of best needles per annum. These are startling results and show that, in considering the seats of manufacture in England, we must not forget to include the remarkable Worcestershire village of Redditch.
THE ILLUSTRATED CATALOGUE OF THE INTERNATIONAL EXHIBITION 1862
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