Victorian London - Publications - Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other papers, by Andrew Wynter, 1865 - Chapter 19 - Needle-Making

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    IT is often asked, Where do all the pins go? and it may be as pertinently inquired, Where do all the needles come from? The little machine that is put in action to make the greater part of the clothes of the world,* [* The sewing-machine, since this paper was written, has rapidly encroached upon the province of the common sewing-machine] and to minister to the vanity of womenfolk, surely must have some birthplace worth noting, and a pilgrimage into Worcestershire the other day led us to its discovery. We are but too apt to associate with iron and steel workers, grimy and soot-clogged towns, blasted neighbouring country, and pale and stunted artisans. The manufacture of needles, however, entails no such disagreeables. Redditch, the grand armoury of the female weapon, is as pretty a little village as need be met with, and were it not for the presence of a tall red chimney, and the hiss of a grind-stone as you pass a water wheel, now and then, you may well imagine yourself in a Kentish village. Incited by curiosity, we asked permission to see the workshops of one of the largest manufacturers, which was most courteously granted, and an attendant ushered us into a little door, where a stalwart Vulcan presided over a fierce furnace, the walls of his apartment being hung round with coils of wire of all weights and sizes.
    [-185-] "Here," said our cicerone, "the needle makes its first start into existence," and as he spoke, the workman reached down a huge coil of wire, measured about three inches, and snapped off with a pair of shears, at one jerk, sixty small wires, each one forming, of course, the segment of a large circle or coil. To straighten this raw material of the future needles is his next care, and this he does in a very ingenious manner. The bundles of wire as they are cut off, are put within two iron rings of about four inches diameter, and placed sufficiently apart. to allow the whole length of the wires to rest between them; when the two rings are nearly full, the whole is placed in the furnace and heated to a dull red heat. And now the future needle receives its first instruction. The workman with an iron rod rapidly works the wires within the two rings, one upon another, and this process of mutual attrition rapidly straightens them out, just as little boys warped and bent from the mother's knee, get set up true again, by the bullying and hard knocks of a public school. The straightened wires are now handed over to the grinder to give them their points. We must take a little excursion out of the town to witness this process, inasmuch as it is performed by water-power. As we walked across the meadows, knee-deep in grass, and listened to the drip, drip, of the merry mill-wheel, and saw the stream meandering in silver at our feet, it was difficult to believe that we were seeking a factory, rather than the haunts of speckled trout. Still more difficult was it to believe that the little cottage, whose tallest rose peeped in the casement, was nothing more than a workshop, full of busy artisans; and more difficult than all, to persuade ourselves that in this ap-[-186-]parent dwelling-place of health, a manufacture was being carried on which not long since was the most deadly in existence. We have all heard of the fork-grinders of Sheffield, whose average term of life is twenty-nine years. Well, the occupation of a needle-grinder, a few years since, was no less deadly. The grinding process is carried on with a dry stone, and of old, the artisan, as he leaned over his work, received into his lungs the jagged particles of steel, and the stone dust given off in the process, and as a consequence, they speedily became disorganised, and. his early death ensued. The expedient of covering over their grind-stones and driving out the dust by means of a revolving fan, was adopted only a few years ago; so little are men inclined to move out of the old accustomed ways, even to save their lives; nay, their lives have to be saved even against their will; as, even now, if not closely watched, they would disconnect the fans, and thus deliberately renew the old danger: indeed some of them look upon the danger as so much capital with which they think that the masters have no right to interfere, exclaiming with the Sheffield fork grinders, that the trade is "so overfull already," that these fans will "prevent them getting a living." However, the higher intelligence of the masters, we trust, will prevent any relapse into former ways; and the deadly nature of needle-grinding is now only a thing of the past. The workmen we saw were certainly rosy, robust-looking men.

    To return to our needle wires, however; it will be observed, that the workman grinds both ends to a sharp point, for a reason which the next process makes evident. They are now taken back to the factory, and enter the [-187-] stamping shop, where girls, with inconceivable rapidity, place each wire beneath a die, and stamp exactly in the middle thereof two eyes and two channels or gutters, as they are termed. It is clear that the wire is to produce Siamese-twin needles, for another batch of little girls are now seen actively punching out the eyes that were before only indicated by the stamping process. The eyes stamped, another batch of urchins catch them up and spit them, in other words, pass fine wires between the two rows of eyes, a manoeuvre preparatory to separating the Siamese into separate needles; the bur is now :filed off, and the rough form of the needle is complete. Having been licked into form, its temper has next to be hardened. Fire again is called on to do its part, and the needles, in traysful, are once more heated to a dull red, and then suddenly quenched in oil. This process makes them so brittle, that they fly at the slightest attempt to bend them. Like fiery little boys, they want taking down a little, which is done by placing them on a hot plate, and turning them about with two little tools, shaped like small hatchets. This is very nice work, indeed, and the change that is going on in the needle mass is marked by the change of colour, the deep blue gradually growing pale, and a straw colour, by faint shades, taking its place; at a particular moment the true temper is established, and then the heat is withdrawn. Having been thus tried by fire, earth (or stone), and water, some of the needles have perhaps got a little out of the straight line, and this is rectified by women, who take them up, one by one, and with wonderful delicacy of finger discover its faulty parts, and with one tap of a hammer on a small anvil, restore it, [-188-]  to its right shape. The education of the needle in all its essentials may now be said to be complete. It is fully formed, tempered, and trained, and is about to leave school to receive that further polish which is to make it serviceable In the world.
    And just as in the world the awkward youth is subjected to severe antagonistic influences, which together mould him into the smooth and pleasant man, so the needle, in like manner, suffers a wholesome trituration. The process is droll enough. Fourteen pounds' weight of needles, amounting to many thousands, are placed side by side in a hempen cloth, to which are added a certain modicum or soft soap and sweet oil. So far this promises to be an "oily gammon" sort of process; but the addition of a due amount of emery powder soon dissipates any such anticipation. The mass is then wrapped up into a kind of roly-poly pudding; and when several puddings have been prepared, they are all slipped into a machine exactly like a mangle, the roly polies serving as the rollers thereof; and now the whole machine is set in motion by the waterwheel. Backwards and forwards, to and fro, grind and sweat the roly-polies with their layers of needle jam, for eight hours of eight mortal days, at the end of which time they are released from their terrible mauling, evidently all the brighter, smoother, and pleasanter for the infliction. The oil of battle still clings to them however; and in order to get rid of it, the needles are thoroughly washed in soapsuds in a copper pan, swinging upon a pivot, and then dried in sawdust.
    They are now all at sixes and sevens, and have to be "evened," or placed in a parallel direction.
    [-189-]  This is accomplished by shaking them in little trays. Heads and points still lie together, and in order to put them all in the same direction, the "ragger" is employed. The little girl who performs this office places a rag or dolly upon the forefinger of her' right hand, and with the left presses the needles against it; the points stick into the soft cotton, and are thus easily withdrawn and laid in the contrary direction. Little children "rag" with inconceivable rapidity, and with equal speed the process of sorting, according to lengths, is performed, the human hand appreciating even the sixteenth of an inch in length, and separating the different sizes with a kind of instinct with which the reasoning power seems to have nothing to do. The needles are now separated into parcels, and such is their uniformity, that, like sovereigns, weighing takes the place of counting — one thousand needles in one scale exactly balancing one thousand in another. The needles being now placed in companies, are in future manoeuvred together. That is, the heads of each company are simultaneously subjected to heat, in order to soften them, for the double purpose of giving a blue to the gutters, which is considered an ornament, and of counter-sinking the eyes in order that they may not cut the cotton. The final processes of grinding the heads and points, and polishing, is now performed by skilled workmen. The needles, in companies of seventy each, are subjected to a small grindstone, the workmen slowly revolving the whole number, so that they are ground in a mass, as it were, and the polishing being accomplished in a like manner, on a similar wheel ,smeared with crocus. The original batch of wire, of fourteen pounds weight, gives material for 48,100 needles; [-190-]  and after having undergone every process, it is found that they number, on the average, 46,700 so that the loss by breakage has only been 1,400; even with this comparatively small waste, however, the accumulation of imperfect needles in courrse of time is immense. We saw heaps of many tons weight in the premises of one of the large manufacturers. It is roughly calculated that upwards of ten tons of wire are weekly employed in the manufacture of needles in Redditch and the adjoining villages. If we multiply this by 52 we get the enormous weight of 520 tons of needles turned out annually from this neighbourhood alone. This mass representing a number of neec1les which we feel unequal to calculate, goes to keep company, we suppose, with the pins, the mysterious manner of whose final disappearance has never yet been properly accounted for.