Forge Mill Museum in Redditch and the Art of Needle Making

I had always connected the city of Redditch as the hometown of ENTACO Ltd,  the last of the Hand Sewing Machine needle company in England. It was only recently that I learnt that Redditch was the epicentre of all the dramatic developments in hand sewing needle making for hundreds of years beginning 16th century.

The western religious texts supposedly mentions needle as one of the five tools brought to Paradise by Adam! The trend for grand personal adornment by garments was quite the rage in 16thcentury and needles were in demand. Around the 1600s it was an exotic and rare object. A silver or gold needle was considered a splendid gift amongst the wealthy. Needles were such a useful and indispensable tool that an anecdote circulating in 1850 was that needles can be exchanged for a wife in Sudan! North Americans supposedly bartered land for pockets of needles.

Forge Mill Museum, Redditch

The Spaniards were reportedly the masters of needle making, passing their skills on to the British in early 16thcentury. Prior to Spanish needle workers arriving in England, needles were crude and rough in manufacture, typically carried out by a blacksmith. The English needle makers began importing the specially drawn wire from Spain and Germany, who excelled in drawing wire, and final fabrication of the needle was further developed by the English. The small town of Redditch went on to become world famous for its high-quality manufacturing of handmade sewing needles. 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. At its peak, Redditch produced 90% of the world’s Hand sewing needles.

Forge Mill Needle Museum in Reddich, England, tells the fascinating and sometimes gruesome story of needle making in Victorian times.  It was a cold Thursday morning on 3rdApril 2019 and I decided to visit this museum. An hour’s train journey from London to Birmingham, followed by a 20-minute travel by local train and a short taxi ride took me to its doorstep.

Forge Mill Museum, Redditch

The museum comprises two blocks of historic red brick buildings.  You can step back in time and experience the largely unchanged atmosphere of an original Hand Sewing Needle factory- right down to machines, tools, wire of that era and even factory grime and cobwebs added by the museum for effect. Much of the original Victorian water powered machinery remains and visitors get to see a demonstration on Tuesday afternoons and on weekends. There was more than one TV screen where movies are broadcast starring actors playing parts of factory workers dressed in period costumes. There were also phones which, when lifted and placed to the ear, tell stories relating to the factory. The stream which provided the water was once known as “Red Ditch”, from which the town got its name. It was called Red Ditch because it stained the grounds with a thick red clay (iron particles?).

Needle manufacturing process was long and the best paid job was also the most dangerous operation of Pointing of needle. Slivers of metal could fly up and blind the worker. Or the grindstone itself could shatter and cause fatal injuries. Furthermore, to impede rust, needles were rolled in asbestos powder. A typical working day lasted 13 hours and six days of the week. It is not surprising that the life expectancy of a pointer was no more than 35 years.

Another floor entirely related to commercial aspects of the business – varieties of needles, applications, marketing, history of big names in the business.

Forge Mill Museum, Redditch

The variety of hand sewing needles displayed boggles the mind- long, short, thick, thin, straight, curved, sharp, blunt, flat, pointed… the variety is endless. They found applications not just in sewing clothes. Embroidery, pins, fishhooks, fishing tackle, harpoons, sail hooks, sailors’ palms, sewing machines, knitting pins, and bodkins, surgery, fishing… Each company of those times had arranged the needles artistically in a large picture frame to visually bring out the range and quality. These frames were taken out for display in world exhibitions in Europe and Americas. Gold, silver and bronze coins were awarded at these exhibitions depending upon utility, innovation, quality etc., These coins form the subject of several displays. When they are not touring around, the needle displays were brought back to head office and kept in board room. These are priceless and amazingly carefully preserved and the companies were generous enough to give it to the museum for display.

But, Redditch seem to have missed getting on the Sewing Machine needle bandwagon. In 1850s Singer, Elias Howe and some others invented sewing machines and did a fantastic job of marketing them. Businessmen in Aachen, Germany, spotted this opportunity. They designed needles for these machines, pioneered die press and other critical operations for fast production, high quality and similar challenges that sewing machine demanded. The pioneer among them was Leo Lammertz whose technology and machines are now used by Beissel in the Chennai factory in India. But that is another story for another time.

There were more than 100 Hand Sewing Needle companies in 19thcentury which amalgamated with each other mostly through marriage. One of the stellar names was Henry Milward and Sons which began in 1730 and  lasted four generations. The other was Abel Morrall started in 1785.  At its peak, 15,000 persons were employed in the factories.

During the World War II, the companies in the region diverted their energies into supporting war efforts. Men and women in the factories joined the armed forces. When the war ended and factory life returned to normalcy, there were inevitable changes. Companies consolidated and they morphed into different avatars including changing from family to corporate ownership.

Eventually, there would be only two companies – ENTACO Ltd. and Needle Industries Ltd. The latter started a factory in Ooty, India, and is now a 100% Indian owned company. Their Home sewing needles, marketed under brand “Pony”, is prized for quality around the world. ENTACO, which was owned by Coats, was subject of a management buy-out. But, their factory no longer operates in England. They outsource Hand Sewing Needles from another country and sell under the name “John James”.

Similarly, manufacture of Industrial Sewing Machine Needles grew phenomenally in Aachen, Germany, and was the only source for quality Needles worldwide. But, today no Sewing machine needle is manufactured in Germany. Our company was the first to buy machines of LeoLammertz and began manufacture in 1997. This was followed by other German companies moving to India. Therefore, India has now become the centre of both Sewing Machine and Hand Sewing Needles.

Redditch also was the home of two other household names in India – Royal Enfield which was eventually bought out by the Indian partner, saw revival first as a retro and now as high performance motorcycle. Another was Guest Keen Williams (GKN) which made a fortune selling humble safety pins. This company is now extinct both in India and England.

The museum has a shop which sells a large variety of memorabilia – books, DVDs, needles, fridge magnets etc., I bought as many as possible. The entrance fees is just 5.80 Pounds but entitles three repeat visits in a year on this single ticket. There are events through the year relating to sewing and art. There is a nice café too.

Forge Mill Museum, Redditch

The curator of the museum, Ms J Gloger, was kind enough to personally welcome us. There is a special bond between needlephiles and spent considerable time with us filling up with stories and patiently answering all questions. Ms Gloger took the trouble to retrieve from archives a write-up on Leo Lammertz and generously gave a printout. The other memorabilia we were gifted are similarly priceless and should be the beginning of our own collection.

There are two more needle museums in the world,  one in Stolberg, Germany, near Aachen. The other is by Bohin of France in Normandy, the scene of d-day landing during World War II. I have seen the one in Stolberg but the Bohin museum is still on my bucket list.

While reminiscing the day’s experience on the train returning to London, I realised the enviable (or unenviable)  position me and my colleagues are in by being part-inheritors of this glorious legacy.  Will we be up to the challenge of adding to the technological prowess in making this vital tool whose contribution to day-to-day living is too small to notice but too big to ignore?

S Ganesh

Managing Director, Altek Beissel Needles Limited

The story of Beissel – “The brand behind brands”

The history of needles begins at Redditch, England, in 16th century

The history of needles began, not in Aachen, Germany, but Redditch, a short distance away from Birmingham, England. The story begins in 16th century and Redditch went on to become world famous for its high quality hand sewing needles. Sewing Machine itself was to be discovered three centuries later.

At its peak, 90% of the world’s hand sewing needles were produced at Redditch. There were more than 100 Hand Sewing Needle companies employing 15,000 persons by 19th century. The variety of hand sewing needles displayed boggles the mind – long, short, thick, thin, straight, curved, sharp, blunt, flat, pointed… the variety is endless. They found applications not just in sewing clothes. Embroidery, pins, fishhooks, fishing tackle, harpoons, sail hooks, sailors’ palms, knitting pins, and bodkins, surgery, fishing ……

The fetish for elaborate dress sense during Victorian times, industrial revolution and innovation carried the English domination to stratospheric heights by 19th century.

1860 onwards – Rise of Aachen, Germany, and decline of Redditch, England

In the meantime, a continent away in America, inventors Isaac Singer and Elias Howe battled over patent rights for inventing the sewing machine. Howe won the battle in the Courts but, eventually, Singer was the winner in market place. He bought the patents, improved on the machine and introduced path-breaking concept of instalment sale of sewing machines. This revolutionised cloth making in coming years. Thereby, arose the need for Sewing Machine needles.

Another interesting reason is contained in the fact that, in the long Needle manufacturing process, the best paid job was also the most dangerous operation of Pointing of needle. The iron dust generated in this operation was inhaled by the worker causing high mortalities. In 1845, a Colin Banks of Reddich invented Point grinding machine. But, the British workers smashed this machine in anger. Banks goes to Aachen, Germany, and sells this machine. This seemingly innocuous event was to change the landscape of needle industry and its shift to Aachen and gradual fading away of Redditch from needle map.

Mr. Stephan Beissel was the first off the block setting up needle company on 13th October 1853 in Germany. Wins a Medal in the First Industrial Exhibition in London.

On 1st October 1861, Mr. Leo Lammertz set up a factory in Aachen, Germany, to manufacture Sewing Machine needles. He pioneered die press and other critical operations for fast production, high quality and similar challenges that sewing machine demanded.

Other companies followed. Rheinische Nadelfabriken (later known as Rheinnadel) acquired many needle companies including Walter Hesse which was set up in 1654.

In 1859, William Gustavo Prym starts production of needle and is to grow as a big haberdashery company even to this day. The growth was aided by Berlin becoming the cradle of apparel industry by 1860. Germany also emerged as a pioneer in manufacture of all varieties of sewing machines.

By 1900, there were 34 needle companies in Aachen employing 4,092 workers.

The growth continued in the early 1900s. Singer Nahmachinen started in 30th Nov 1922 near Aachen. Schmetz started Sewing machine needle factory in 1922.

German manufacturers of machines to make needles wanted to export the capital equipment abroad and refused request of needle industry not to do so. Needle manufacturers retaliated by deciding not to share needle knowledge and started building their own machines. So needle making becomes a exclusive club with Aachen ruling the world.

Even the devastation of Germany during Second World War was overcome, factories re-built. By 1949, Aachen produced 70% of sewing machine needles, 40% of Hand sewing needles and 80% of pins and safety pins.

Beginning with Emperor Charlemagne in 12th century and until 17th century, Aachen was the political seat from which Europe was ruled. Now, Aachen ruled the Needle world.

Decline of Aachen, Germany, and rise of India and Beissel

The first signs was the decisive shifting of garment manufacturing to Asia in the 1980s and the giants were China and India. The post-war prosperity in Germany was to work against for Needle industry. The garment industry, which is labour intensive, rapidly declined in Europe.

There was bitter competition among needle manufacturers because the Asian manufacturers were cost conscious. The Germans resorted to take over and number of needle manufactures came down. In 1995, Rheinnadel bought the brands of Leo Lammertz, Beka and Muva.

The green shoots of Needle industry in India began in 1996 when Altek bought the machines from LeoLammertz on its being shut down. Rheinnadel approached Altek for a joint venture sensing an opportunity to move to a low cost location and growing garment industry in India. This gave Altek access to world class technology and learnt skills to manufacture a complete needle range of high quality. Altek quickly grew, started exporting needles back to Rheinnadel who re-sold them all over the world in the brands of Lammertz, Beka, Muva and Rhein. The packing was marked Made in Germany!

Then Schmetz followed too and started two factories in India. Groz Beckert followed suit and started a factory in Chandigarh, India. Schmetz and Groz Beckert (the latter never had a factory in Germany in the first place) were reluctant to tell the world that the needles were made in India and tried hard to keep the world under the impression that needles were of German origin.

Competition continued to be ruthless. They had to contend with Altek in India and elsewhere too.

Rheinnadel threw in the towel in 2003 and sold out to Groz Beckert giving away the brands Rhein, Beka, Muva and Lammertz.

Altek had relationship with Rheinnadel as a joint venture and should have been on the cross-hairs as well. But, Altek fought – to paraphrase Churchill – in the courts, in Indian market and in world markets. To cut a long story short, Altek escaped the reach of Groz Beckert, registered Trade Mark rights to Beissel brand and lived to fight another day. It was a battle worth of a David Vs Goliath.

Groz Beckert and Schmetz started undercutting each other, gave extended credit and gave up minimum order requirements.

Burdened by financial losses over a decade, Schmetz collapsed in 2017 and sold out to Groz Beckert. Even the pretence of a German needle manufacturing company has now come to an end.

Pundits had for many years predicted that Groz Beckert’s financial muscle and predatory corporate culture will prevail – price cutting and unlimited credit were strong weapons. In addition, at least in our opinion, the supposed prowess of Groz Beckert needles (SAN, Loop Control et al) were unprovable at the least and counted on gullibility of customers at worst.

Altek’s strategy was to win customers by sticking to fundamentals. Offer a large range of top quality needles as per German DIN standards manufactured from German/Japanese High Carbon Steel wire. Backed by unbeatable price and service.

  • Marquee brands in the world (including those mentioned in this blog which played a role in the rise of Germany as a needle manufacturing world power) source household needles exclusively from us.
  • In India, our King brand has emerged as clear favourites to be #1 brand.
  • Altek has eliminated clutter in pricing models. In Household needles, it is “any needle, one price” now. In industrial needles, just four price groups instead of dozens followed by competitors.
  • Packing will now be only paper. We are the first to throw away plastic packaging. The competitors will need to inevitably follow.

Altek, which was the brand behind the brands Rhein, Beka, Muva, Lammertz and other marquee names mentioned earlier, has decided that it is now time to emerge strongly in its own name. The name “Beissel” will be continued as a tribute to the German contribution to the world in needle making. “King” will be Altek’s own brand dedicated to India.

The time has come to emerge strongly be ourselves.

 

Beissel Needles