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.